Justice's courtroom jeopardy, ranked as chief executive of west virginia's government and of his family's business empire, jim justice is balancing several legal complications


A whiteboard might be helpful to keep track of the complicated courtroom life of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice.

As governor and as the head of dozens of family businesses, Justice has plenty of challenges.

Add to that, Justice is dealing with multiple legal conflicts.

Here’s a rundown:

4. Residency requirement

West Virginia Governor's Mansion

The lawsuit over whether Justice violates the state Constitution by continuing to make his home in Lewisburg is set for a hearing, straight ahead on June 5.

The state Constitution addresses where officers of the executive branch should live: “They shall reside at the seat of government during their terms of office, keep there the public records, books and papers pertaining to their respective offices, and shall perform such duties as may be prescribed by law.”

Justice’s legal team, led by former U.S. Attorney Mike Carey, says it’s not so simple.

A court filing on behalf of the Governor’s Office says “the purported duty to ‘reside’ at the seat of government is so nebulous and laden with discretion that any writ granted in this case would necessarily involve prescribing the manner in which the governor shall act.”

The plaintiff is Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, a lawyer in Franklin.

The case is before Kanawha Circuit Judge Charles King, who has already heard the basics once.

During a hearing last August, King asked how a judge would compel the governor to live anywhere in particular.

“You want me to compel Governor Justice to live in Charleston. How many days and nights am I to require him to live here, regardless of what he has to do?” King asked during that hearing.

Sponaugle responded, “I want him to follow the Constitution.”

3. Matters in Judge Berger’s courtroom

U.S. Courthouse in Charleston, W.Va.

U.S. District Judge Irene Berger, who is overseeing some civil lawsuits against Justice’s companies, seems to be running out of patience.

In one case, Berger entered an order overruling objections by lawyers for Justice’s Bluestone Coal Company to $1,000-a-day penalties that were racking up.

“Indeed,” Berger wrote, “continuing to fail to make required payments following order of judgement may improperly lead to more stringent, not less stringent consequences.

“The amount of any penalties remains fully in control of the defendants, who can avoid additional penalties by making all payments in full within the agreed-upon time frame.”

The case is a class action suit filed in 2016 by coal miners who said they were laid off without adequate warning under federal law.

This past week, U.S. Marshals were authorized to collect $662,101.42, plus any further $1,000-a-day penalties.

In another case, Berger said the related Justice Energy has continued to flout court directives even though it was already in contempt.

That case started out as a $148,496.14 claim by James River Equipment alleging Justice Energy had failed to pay for parts, equipment and service.

That amount ballooned to $1.23 million when Justice Energy failed to pay, wound up in contempt and Berger issued a $30,000-a-day penalty.

“The Defendant’s decision to simply ignore court orders, deadlines and obligations precipitated the imposition of the contempt sanction,” Berger wrote in the Justice Energy case.

“Continuing to flout the Court’s directives is not a strategy likely to engender positive results.”

2. MSHA and OSM

Gov. Jim Justice

There is already one lawsuit by a federal agency against Justice’s companies, and another one appears imminent.

Justice, responding to reporters’ questions about the first lawsuit, described an unnamed political force at work.

“You know, we’re getting ready to go into an election year. You don’t really know where stuff comes from,” the governor said. “But at the end of the day, we’ll take care of our obligations. We always have and we always will.”

A federal lawsuit was filed early this month by the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

That one says about two dozen companies led by Justice defaulted on 2,297 mine safety penalties over five years. The total amount is $4.7 million.

The federal agencies contend the Justice companies failed to pay or contest the penalties. The agencies contend the Justice companies also ignored repeated warnings.

“Failure to pay penalties is unfair to miners who deserve safe workplaces, and to mine operators who play by the rules,” stated David Zatezalo, assistant secretary of Labor for the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

In the other case, Justice companies have gone ahead and sued the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

That was in anticipation that the Office of Surface Mining was already poised to file suit against the Justice companies.

The lawsuit filed by the Justice companies contends the two parties had agreed to settle fines, reclamation fees and penalties when OSM suddenly started playing hardball.

“The abrupt turnaround by the government in its attitude toward this matter is inexplicable and raises the question whether untoward political or other pressure from sources presently unknown has been brought to bear on OSMRE, perhaps from other federal agencies or political adversaries of the Justice family,” the lawsuit states.

The filings make it clear that OSM and the U.S. Department of Justice have been poised to sue the Justice companies.

“I understand from discussions with your office last week that the filing of one or more complaints is imminent,” wrote Mike Carey, a lawyer for the Justice companies. “This is of grave concern and bewilderment to my clients.”

1. Federal subpoenas

Responsive documents to a subpoena of the state Department of Commerce

At least three state agencies have received federal subpoenas asking for information about Justice’s private holdings.

The subpoenas are not necessarily evidence of wrongdoing, but they are an indication of a federal investigation.

The subpoenas are associated with the Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice, which deals with corruption issues that might be too hot for local prosecutors to handle.

The first subpoena to become publicly known went to the Department of Commerce. Federal investigators asked for records relating to The Greenbrier, The Greenbrier Classic and Old White charities, all headed by Justice.

The next two went to the Department of Revenue and the state Tax Department.

Each agency was asked for years of tax records for 97 Justice businesses.

The investigators also want records related to Justice’s announcement in 2018 that he had cleared up tax debts with the state.

That was when Justice appeared in the Governor’s Conference room along with state Revenue and Tax agency officials to declare his West Virginia tax debt had been cleared.

The state officials did not specify how much debt had been cleared up or what percentage was paid.

Now federal prosecutors want to know more.

When Governor Justice appeared at a press conference three weeks ago he said the federal inquiries, like other matters, would be resolved.

“Really and truly, as far as improprieties and whatever like that, I mean for gosh sakes a living, you can say anything you want but there is nothing there,” Justice said. “There is nothing there.”

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