The billionaire governor of West Virginia, whose business empire has amassed more than $128 million in judgments and settlements against it for unpaid bills, lost another court case this week that adds millions more to that tally.
On Wednesday, Gov. Jim Justice’s Bluestone Resources Inc. was ordered to pay nearly $2.8 million to a financing company after it stopped making payments on a lease for a bulldozer used in coal mining. In court, Bluestone argued it didn’t owe the full original amount. A judge ruled otherwise, ordering Bluestone to pay $2.7 million in damages and $76,000 in legal fees and costs.
The ruling, filed in a Dallas County, Texas, court, comes as Justice campaigns for a second term as governor of the Mountain State, touting his experience as a longtime businessman. But in advance of the state’s June 9 primary, opponents in both political parties are branding the Republican incumbent as a billionaire scofflaw.
This week, ProPublica published the most complete analysis of Justice’s legal record to date, finding hundreds of lawsuits filed against Justice’s sprawling business operations, including dozens brought by workers, vendors, business partners and government agencies, all alleging they weren’t paid.
Representatives of Justice’s companies have declined to comment. Justice and his campaign have not returned emails, letters and phone calls. Instead, the campaign last week sent an email blast to supporters, preemptively dismissing a list of detailed questions from ProPublica as “issues that have been reported on for more than a decade.”
The investigative report chronicled several recent court cases, including one just last month in which a judge found Justice to be personally liable for $6.9 million in damages for unpaid fees on the use of a coal shipping terminal. All told, more than a dozen cases have been filed since Justice took office in January 2017. Unlike his recent predecessors, the governor has refused to place most of his holdings into a blind trust, and he continues to help guide his private business empire.
That has created an uncomfortable dynamic for some plaintiffs. “Suing a sitting governor is not something they take joy in,” William Thorsness, a lawyer for Citizens Asset Finance, told a federal judge in New York during a 2018 hearing, as his clients sought more than $2.5 million from Justice for defaulting on a loan.
In its review, ProPublica found multiple cases where attorneys suing Justice’s companies took extraordinary steps to recoup money, often filing judgments in numerous states, trying to chase down the governor’s business assets.
Just this week, Monsanto Co. took its collection efforts against Justice Family Farms to Virginia, where Justice’s business headquarters is located. The agrochemical giant filed a copy of a judgment there for an $800,000 bill for seed. The money was due in November 2017, court records show, and Monsanto has been litigating the matter in federal court in St. Louis since October 2018.
The new $2.8 million judgment in the bulldozer case involved a financing agreement that Bluestone Resources entered into in June 2018. Initially, Bluestone agreed to a $2.5 million lease for mining equipment. The company later “decided it wanted to pursue a much cheaper leasing option,” for a $1.4 million reconditioned Caterpillar D11 bulldozer, court records show. The two sides disputed what the payments should be, and Bluestone stopped paying.
With West Virginia’s gubernatorial primary less than two weeks away, candidates for governor from both parties are attacking Justice for his companies’ long record of lawsuits involving coal mines, farming operations and resort hotels.
On a statewide radio talk show Wednesday, Republican gubernatorial challenger Woody Thrasher cited the ProPublica story “about literally hundreds of lawsuits” against Justice. “Look at his track record in business,” Thrasher said. “The guy is a professional at misleading people.”
Democratic candidate Stephen Smith’s campaign posted several tweets about the story Wednesday, specifically noting cases where Justice’s coal miners had to sue over bounced paychecks or terminated health care benefits. After initially challenging those claims, the governor’s companies settled the cases. “Our miners deserve better than broken promises and empty words,” one of the Smith campaign’s tweets said.
Another Democratic candidate, Ben Salango, tweeted Thursday morning, “For Justice, it’s all about looking out for himself, no matter who gets hurt.”
Meanwhile, Justice has resisted calls for a debate before the primary, saying he’s focused on West Virginia’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“With all the stuff I am doing every day, why in the world would I be taking time away from what I’m trying to take care of here considering all those facts and do something political?” Justice said Tuesday. “I don’t even know where my political office is downtown right now. All I am trying to do right now is take care of West Virginia.”