On Tuesday, MetroNews reported that federal prosecutors had subpoenaed the West Virginia Department of Commerce for records pertaining to the Greenbrier golf resort, which is owned by Republican Gov. Jim Justice. It’s not clear what the nature of the investigation is, though Justice, who is up for re-election next year, was quick to deny any wrongdoing even in the absence of any specific (or even vague) accusations.
This news comes the same week as two new unflattering stories about Justice and his businesses. Forbes, which for years has ranked Justice as the wealthiest man in West Virginia, published a feature-length article titled “The Deadbeat Billionaire: The Inside Story Of How West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice Ducks Taxes And Slow-Pays His Bills.”
If Justice sounds just like the man occupying the White House, he is. Justice and Trump have been compared to one another since they were both on the ballot in 2016, even though Justice was running as a Democrat back then. The governor would switch parties at a Trump rally the following year and Trump has continued to lavish praises on him, labeling him “the largest, most beautiful man” last year.
Among many other details, reporter Christopher Helman describes how in 2014, one of Justice’s coal companies, Kentucky Fuel, negotiated $4.5 million in civil penalties owed in Kentucky down to $1.5 million when Justice agreed that it would “unconditionally and irrevocably guarantee” that it would finish reclamation work on its mines by November of 2015.
The job has still not been completed, and Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet, the state equivalent of the EPA, has asked a judge to order Kentucky Fuel to pay them the remaining $3 million plus interest. Kentucky Fuel has also been caught mining without a permit in a location where the state has repeatedly ordered a halt to work. The agency, saying that the company “removed coal as if the Commonwealth’s cessation orders did not exist,” declared that they didn’t trust Justice’s firms anymore.
In true Trump-like fashion, Justice said he should be thanked, rather than criticized, by Kentucky officials for fixing 500 mining violations over the past five years, and he labeled the Energy and Environment Cabinet “unappreciative, jealous, and vindictive.” However, even Justice’s fellow Republicans aren’t all aboard with his excuses for the many lawsuits and fines leveled against his companies. State Senate President Mitch Carmichael, who praised Justice back in August, told Forbes that, while lawsuits “can be legitimate occurrences,” the governor is “either the unluckiest person or he has a propensity to do these type of things.”
On Wednesday, NPR also reported that Justice’s coal companies owe $4.3 million in penalties to the federal government assessed for safety shortcomings at his mines, which the story calls “the highest delinquent mine safety debt in the U.S. mining industry.”
Back in 2014, NPR reported that Justice owed just under $2 million to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). The following year, at the press conference where Justice launched his campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor, Justice declared that he would “absolutely ... make sure that every one of [the debts] is taken care of,” which is very much not what’s happened. An attorney for Justice’s company said this week that the firm was “currently involved in negotiations” with MSHA, but the agency responded that it was not “currently involved in negotiations with the Justice group.”
But will any of this matter in West Virginia, a state that has eagerly embraced Trump and all his own business problems? It very well might. Justice currently faces a primary challenge former state Del. Mike Folk, who lost a state Senate race last year, but it remains to be seen if Folk can run a strong race.
Former state Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher, who was fired by Justice last year, reportedly is also considering a bid. However, like Justice, Thrasher only recently left the Democratic Party, so he might have a tough time getting traction. One report, though, suggested that Justice’s allegedly poor work ethic as governor would be a focal point of a Thrasher campaign, so these latest stories would dovetail well with such an attack.
The GOP nominee would almost have the edge in the general election, though Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who is probably Team Blue’s strongest contender, is considering jumping in. He, too, has blasted Justice as a lazy, part-time governor, specifically citing Justice’s decision to live at the Greenbrier, which is 120 miles from the state capital in Charleston.
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