Series: Big Jim
West Virginia’s Conflicted Governor
This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with Mountain State Spotlight. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.
For years, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has been dogged by allegations that his family businesses haven’t paid their debts, including fines for environmental violations at their coal plants. One bank is even seeking to garnish his salary as governor to cover an unpaid personal guarantee of a business loan, court documents show.
But these disputes are likely to resurface in what will be one of the most hotly contested races for control of the U.S. Senate in 2024. Last week, Justice, a Republican who is immensely popular in the state, announced that he will challenge U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat who is often the swing vote on key legislation.
A review by ProPublica in 2020 found that, over three decades, Justice’s constellation of mining, farming and hospitality companies were involved in over 600 lawsuits in more than two dozen states. Many were filed by workers, vendors, business partners and government agencies, 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.
By late 2020, the total in judgments and settlements for Justice family businesses had reached $140 million, ProPublica and Mountain State Spotlight found.
Since then, his family business empire has faced more turmoil. Lenders are trying to hold him personally responsible for hundreds of millions in debt. Courts are ordering payment of long-standing environmental penalties.
Neither representatives for Justice nor the family’s businesses responded to a request for comment. In the past, Justice has said that he and his family companies always pay what they owe. The governor has said that his businesses don’t create any conflicts of interest and that he didn’t run for office to get anything for himself.
Justice inherited a coal fortune from his father and expanded it to an empire of agricultural companies and resort hotels, including The Greenbrier, a posh, historic resort located in a valley where southern West Virginia’s mountains meet western Virginia’s rolling hills.
Last week, Justice used The Greenbrier as the backdrop for his announcement that he would seek the Republican nomination, facing U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney in the GOP primary. (Manchin has not announced a reelection bid yet, but in response to questions about Justice he said, “Make no mistake, I will win any race I enter.”)
As we documented, the resort has been at the heart of various conflicts of interest, as major trade associations that lobby state government for their industries have held meetings and conferences there.
And just two days before Justice’s Senate announcement, another of his resorts, Glade Springs, was the subject of state Supreme Court arguments in a case in which the resort homeowners’ association is seeking $6.6 million in property upkeep fees from one of Justice’s companies, which owns lots at the resort.
When he became governor in 2017, Justice said he was turning control of his family businesses over to his adult children. But our investigation found that, while governor, he continued to steer the empire.
In his political campaigns, Justice frequently touted his experience as a businessman and said that his long career in coal and other industries made him suited for the role of West Virginia’s chief executive.
Justice’s coal operations have also been repeatedly pressed to settle allegations of significant pollution problems in deals with regulators, yet the environmental violations have continued. Last month, a federal appeals court ruled that Justice companies must pay $2.5 million in environmental fines. Lawyers for the companies had argued the fines were the result of a misreading of an earlier settlement.
In December, an industrial plant owned by Justice’s family agreed to pay nearly $1 million in fines after releasing excessive air pollution into Black neighborhoods in Birmingham, Alabama. An attorney who works with the Justice family said the consent order would “provide the certainty that the company needs to complete its evaluation of the plant’s future.”
For years, Justice had been considered West Virginia’s richest man and listed by Forbes as a billionaire. But in 2021, Forbes removed that listing. The magazine cited a dispute over $850 million in debt to the now-defunct firm Greensill Capital.
The Justice companies settled that dispute with a payment plan. But last week a longtime banking partner of Justice’s, Carter Bank & Trust, filed documents seeking to collect on a separate $300 million debt. Justice’s son, Jay Justice, said in a statement that the bank had refused a reasonable repayment plan.