ICYMI: West Virginia’s Billionaire Governor Doesn’t Pay His Bills
“That’s just the way the Justices have done business.”
With less than a week to the West Virginia gubernatorial primary, incumbent Gov. Jim Justice is facing another in-depth exposé from ProPublica revealing a shocking pattern of corruption within his family businesses. The allegations include denying health insurance to hard-working coal miners and failing to pay mine safety penalties.
According to ProPublica, “Justice’s constellation of companies has been involved in more than 600 lawsuits spanning more than two dozen states.” Last month, a federal court found Justice personally liable for $6.9 million in unpaid fees to a coal shipping terminal.
Justice is already in hot water with his fellow Republicans – this article won’t cool things down. He faces a tough primary challenge from one of his own former cabinet members, Woody Thrasher. Thrasher, also a business owner, took shots at Justice earlier this year: “I know what it’s like to make payroll every week, without a string of lawsuits and unpaid bills.”
The walls are closing in, and Justice is getting desperate. In response to the ProPublica article, Justice sent out a fundraising email trashing ProPublica and its journalist.
Read more about Justice’s corrupt tactics below:
Raymond Dye had a buildup of blood behind his left eye that prevented him from seeing. David Polk had an abnormal heartbeat, and his wife had high cholesterol. Roger Wriston’s wife had a bad back.
All the men had worked for a collection of coal companies owned by Gov. Jim Justice and his family, which had pledged to provide health insurance after the miners retired. Last year, though, the retirees learned that those firms had stopped paying their premiums. And as a result, their coverage had been terminated. Polk skipped doctor appointments.
“I don’t think it’s fair what they’re doing to someone who worked their whole life,” Wriston’s wife, Tammy, said in an interview.
About 150 retired miners around West Virginia were making a similar discovery. So the United Mine Workers of America, the same miners’ union that had endorsed Justice’s election as governor in 2016, went to court last year and asked a federal judge to force the Justice companies to pay.
“We’ve dealt with them a lot over the years, with people’s benefits being on and off,” said Josh West, a UMWA district representative. “That’s just the way the Justices have done business.”
As he runs for reelection, Jim Justice, a billionaire and the state’s richest man, frequently touts his experience as a businessman, saying that his long career in coal and other industries makes him uniquely suited for the role of the state’s chief executive. When he’s been asked about lawsuits over unpaid bills, the governor has emphasized that he and his companies always pay what they owe.
But a ProPublica review found that, over the last three decades, Justice’s constellation of companies has been involved in more than 600 lawsuits spanning more than two dozen states — including many filed by workers, vendors, business partners and government agencies, all alleging they weren’t paid. Often, similar cases were filed in multiple jurisdictions, as lawyers for plaintiffs tried to chase down a Justice company’s assets to settle debts.
Coal miners working for Justice companies have filed at least a half-dozen suits to collect money they said was due to them when they were laid off without legally required warnings or when their paychecks bounced.
To date, parties have won judgments or forced settlements worth more than $128 million in cases against the Justice empire. That’s significantly higher than what has been previously reported.
Justice’s reelection campaign did not respond to an inquiry but instead sent an email blast to supporters, preemptively attacking the story, its author and ProPublica. It dismissed a list of detailed questions as “issues that have been reported on for more than a decade.”
As recently as last month, though, a federal judge found Justice to be personally liable for $6.9 million in damages for unpaid fees for the use of a coal shipping terminal in Newport News, Virginia. Lawyers for Justice and one of his companies had argued that they didn’t owe the fees.
Republican and Democratic candidates for governor have blasted Justice for his business empire’s long roster of debt collection cases. “I know what it’s like to make payroll every week, without a string of lawsuits and unpaid bills,” Woody Thrasher, Justice’s former Commerce Secretary and now a Republican primary opponent, told a local television station in March.
Even in a much-maligned industry, the practices of Justice’s companies have drawn attention. Some operators initially distanced themselves from him as he entered the political arena. Bob Murray, the controversial CEO of Murray Energy Corp., opposed Justice’s bid for governor, in part citing his financial troubles.
“I was aware of about 20 lawsuits against him for not paying his bills,” Murray told a crowd of Ohio County Republicans in 2015, according to a copy of his speech, “a bad image for the coal industry.”
While past media reports — including those by NPR and Forbes — have noted two cases where Justice companies have failed to pay even their own lawyers, ProPublica found at least seven additional instances in which Justice companies were sued by law firms that had represented them. Taken together, the string of cases shows a pattern: A Justice company fails to pay a bill and is sued over the debt. Lawyers are hired to fight the collection suit. They often lose or settle, and then have to sue their Justice-related clients to get their fees.