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Statehouse Beat: Next time, let’s do better on vetting candidates

In 2016, West Virginians elected a president and a governor, in significant part, believing them to be highly successful businessmen, and with the hope that they would be able to apply that business acumen to the world of politics, even though neither had much in the way of prior governmental experience.

Since then — and as exemplified in headlines last week — it is becoming increasing clear that their personas were built on a good deal of hype, mythology, and frequently, pure fabrication.

It is becoming increasingly clear neither man is nearly as wealthy, nearly as successful, or nearly as brilliant at business as we had been led to believe. Both have a history of being tardy in paying vendors and contractors, and in paying fines and penalties, and in at least one case, has frequently been able to avoid paying any taxes.

For Gov. Jim Justice, each week seems to bring at least one embarrassing headline. Last week that being word of a federal Department of Justice lawsuit seeking nearly $4.8 million in delinquent mine safety fines and penalties assessed against 23 coal companies in Virginia, West Virginia, Alabama and Tennessee owned by the Justice family.

Regardless of Justice’s explanations, the suit is particularly damning for the titular head of government in a coal-producing state with a long, troubling history of mine safety violations.

(Speaking of Virginia, a reader alerted me to news coming out of Albermarle County, Virginia, where the county has started the process of auctioning off 55 parcels of property in southeastern corner of the county owned by the James C. Justice Cos. for delinquent property taxes and fees totaling $311,103, as reported in an article and legal ads in the Charlottesville Daily Progress.)

The point being, we the voters did an ineffective job of vetting candidates in 2016.

Donald Trump, for one, became the first presidential candidate in a generation to refuse to release his tax returns, and now the reasons why he did so are slowly being brought to light.

We ignored Hillary Clinton when she spelled out the possible explanations for his refusal in the second presidential debate: Perhaps he’s not as rich as he says he is, he’s not as charitable as he claims, owes massive debts to foreign banks and investors, or doesn’t pay taxes. (On the latter, Trump interjected, “That makes me smart.”)

In West Virginia, gubernatorial candidates traditionally have not been expected to release their tax returns, but given that Justice’s business dealings are apparently being investigated by the Public Integrity Section of the Department of Justice, 2020 might be a good time to begin a precedent to require that level of transparency from gubernatorial hopefuls.

The point we so often forget is that the politicians work for us, not the other way around. In business, if a job applicant refuses to provide his or her resume, or other pertinent background materials, that would be the end of the interview. The Same policy should apply to candidates for public office.

•••

Somebody joked that, of all the vendors and contractors Justice may stiff, he must be paying his lawyers timely, with all the legal battles he’s embroiled in.

To that end, Justice — or rather, the state — has paid more than $27,000 to date in legal fees to defend Justice in the face of legal efforts to compel him to live in Charleston while serving as governor.

Records show that the Governor’s Office has paid the law firm of Carey, Scott, Douglass and Kessler a total of $27,195 to date in defense of legal challenges brought by Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, to compel Justice to abide by the state Constitution’s requirement that the governor (and other statewide-elected executive branch officials) reside in Charleston.

(The Attorney General’s Office authorized the appointment of the law firm as outside counsel, in part, citing Justice’s confidence in the firm’s ability to represent his interests.)

Those billings cover the time period from when the case first got thrown out of Kanawha Circuit Court on a technicality last fall (Sponaugle failed to provide the required 30 days’ advance notice of intent to bring legal action), through the state Supreme Court’s refusal to hear arguments in November. Sponaugle has since refilled the petition, with a hearing set for June 5 before Kanawha Circuit Judge Charles King.

I admit I have a morbid fascination with legal billings, if only to see how comparatively under-compensated I am for performing what are frequently very similar functions.

To wit: Attorney David Pouge billed a half-hour ($137.50) to read Sponaugle’s petition for a writ of mandamus, and an additional $357.50 to “review Sponaugle’s appendix.” (I presume that’s referring to a compilation of case law supporting Sponaugle’s argument, and not the internal organ, in which case, if it were the latter, then Pouge was woefully underpaid, particularly if Sponaugle were an uncooperative participant.)

The bulk of Pouge’s time and billing (13.4 hours, $3,685) was to write a response to Sponaugle’s petition. Boiling that response down to its essence, it claims that the Article 7 Section 1 of the state Constitution is nebulous: “They shall reside at the seat of government during their terms of office.”

(Not being a legal scholar who bills $275 an hour, it seems clear that the requirement is not intended to be a prison sentence that bars constitutional officers from ever leaving the city limits during their four-year terms. However, it also seems obvious that constitutional officers cannot simply ignore the constitutional requirement, and spend the majority of their terms residing somewhere other than the seat of government.)

Meanwhile, one of the items on the invoice to the Governor’s Office involved having a paralegal “organize and tally dates relating to events and the governor’s attendance,” for which there was no charge.

•••

Detecting a pattern with Justice: Speaking at both the Golden Horseshoe ceremony and the Public Employees Recognition awards last week, the governor came in, regaled each audience with tales about himself (in one case, about his trip to the White House to see Tiger Woods get a presidential award), and then promptly left without staying for the actual award presentations.

It evokes criticism from last month, when Justice was scheduled to be the keynote after-dinner speaker for a fundraiser honoring the contributions of a local charitable foundation, hosted by the Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce.

Instead, according to a report in the Beckley Register-Herald (of which I am an alum), “Justice took a microphone in hand, sat on a four-legged stool in front of some 550 people at the gala and, shortly after the affair got underway at 6:30 p.m., defended his business dealings, criticized Sen. Joe Manchin, and warmly embraced the politics of President Donald Trump.”

As he did at the awards ceremonies, according to the report, “Justice left immediately after his speech,” without ever acknowledging the foundation, which was being honored for its many contributions to the community.

Which raises the question, is this pattern just a matter of good, old-fashioned rudeness, or is Justice for whatever reason unable to stay through the duration of these events?

•••

Finally, with the spread of measles in many parts of the country (part of a national epidemic of dumbassery), I wanted to verify that I had had measles as a child.

Since mom’s not around to ask anymore, I pulled out my old baby book, and sure enough, she had dutifully recorded that I had measles in 1961.

Flipping through the book, however, I found some disturbing entries.

Not so much that I didn’t eat well for my first three days because I was “sleepy from the anesthesia,” or that I had radium treatments to remove a birthmark (this in an era when shoe salesmen X-rayed your feet to ascertain your shoe size), or even that my paternal grandmother was a Blankenship.

No, most disturbing were portions of the text of the book, copyright 1956, particularly those providing health advice for women during their pregnancies.

As for smoking during pregnancy, it stated, “A cigarette now and then would seem to do no harm. If you’re a heavy smoker, doctors advise that you cut down to a great extent, but you needn’t quit entirely.”

It also recommended abstaining from alcoholic beverages, not because of potential harm to the fetus, but because, “Alcoholic drinks place an added strain on the kidneys at this time, and should be indulged in rarely, if at all.”

Thank goodness for advances in medical science, but I would also note I was born on the 13th, and mom — after a normal, complication-free delivery — wrote that she was discharged from the hospital on the 18th, five days later, and no doubt without facing sizeable medical bills.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there.

Reach Phil Kabler at

philk@wvgazettemail.com,

304-348-1220 or follow

@PhilKabler on Twitter.

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Funerals for Saturday, August 24, 2019

Barron, Dennis - 11 a.m., Airborne Church, Martinsburg.
Baylor, Elizabeth - 1 p.m., Snodgrass Funeral Home, South Charleston.
Bonds Jr., Patrick - 1 p.m., King of Glory International Ministries, Charleston.
Burgess, Corey - 5 p.m., Aldersgate United Methodist Church.
Burns, Helen - 11 a.m., Stump Funeral Home & Cremation, Inc., Grantsville.
Caldwell, Gary - 6 p.m., Long & Fisher Funeral Home, Sissonville.
Casto, Carroll - 1 p.m., Raynes Funeral Home, Eleanor.
Casto, Roger - 2 p.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Winfield.
Duty, Fred - 2 p.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.
Fisher, Bernard - 2 p.m., Waybright Funeral Home, Ripley.
Gwinn, Lloyd - Noon, Church of Christ, Craigsville.  
Habjan, Nathan - 1 p.m., Wilson-Smith Funeral Home, Clay. 
Hall, Daniel - Noon, Witcher Baptist Church.
Hinkle, Ethel - Noon, Church of Christ, Craigsville.  
Hoffman, Bruce - 2 p.m., Foglesong - Casto Funeral Home, Mason.  
Kinder, Siegel - 1 p.m., Leonard Johnson Funeral Home, Marmet.
Kyler, Virgil - 11 a.m., Pleasant Grove Cemetery, Reedy.
Palmer, William - 1 p.m., Barlow Bonsall Funeral Home, Charleston. 
Raynes Sr., Steven - 1 p.m., Tyree Funeral Home, Oak Hill.
Truman, James - 2 p.m., Newton Baptist Church, Newton.
Turner, Keith - Noon, Full Gospel Assembly,  Huntington. 
Webb, Antoinette - 11 a.m., SS Peter and Paul Catholic Church, Oak Hill.
Wilson, Greg - Noon, Roach Funeral Home, Gassaway.
Withrow, James - 1 p.m., Cooke Funeral Home Chapel, Cedar Grove.