In the past week, Gov. Jim Justice’s personal financial and legal woes appear to have grown more dire.
By all accounts, the collapse of his business empire is accelerating. It was revealed last week that Carter Bank has filed suit against Justice to claim assets, including The Greenbrier Sporting Club, after Justice and his wife, Cathy, defaulted on loans they personally guaranteed.
Credit Suisse, which holds $700 million-plus of Justice loan debts, likely will follow suit.
We also learned the IRS has filed an $8 million lien on Justice’s daughter Jill for unpaid federal taxes dating to 2009.
On Tuesday, the state COVID-19 briefing disintegrated into an extended discussion of Justice’s financial woes. Justice told state media to “stand down” coverage until all matters are resolved, although he admitted the outcome could be dire:
“If truth prevails, it’ll be a terrific outcome. If bad stuff prevails it could be very, very difficult on our family,” he said.
During the same briefing, Justice said that despite the distractions, his efforts are “wholeheartedly” directed at running the state as governor, a claim as counterfactual as his statement later that, “our state has really taken off and nobody can deny that.”
(This after CNBC’s 2021 edition of its “Best States For Business” analysis dropped West Virginia from 45th to 47th in the U.S.)
Critics have called Justice a part-time governor, and I think we’ve established the reason he refuses to live in the governor’s mansion as the state constitution mandates is because he continues operating his private business empire on a hands-on basis daily.
With that empire in a crisis situation, it is reasonable to think Justice will have to devote more and more time to trying to save his private businesses and less and less time to governing the state.
Justice’s lack of focus on running the state was exemplified with another question at the briefing about efforts to find a company to take over the soon-to-be shutdown Viatris (formerly Mylan) pharmaceutical plant in Morgantown.
“When they just walk away, believe me be, it’s a difficult, difficult riddle to solve, and we’ve not been able to solve it yet,” said the man who, when he first ran for governor, touted his ability to pick up the phone and get any Fortune 500 CEO on the line.
(Throughout the saga, Viatris employees and union reps have complained about the scarcity of involvement of Justice and his economic development people in efforts to save the facility.)
That finding a company to take over operations of a state-of-the-art pharmaceutical manufacturing plant is proving to be an unsolvable riddle for one who touts his unparalleled business acumen suggests Justice’s legal and financial distractions are overwhelming his ability to govern effectively, and perhaps eventually, to govern at all.
It’s notable that on July 15, Justice without explanation moved his regular Thursday COVID-19 briefing to Friday. Perhaps not coincidentally, Justice’s private jet left from Lewisburg early that morning and flew to Teterboro Airport (outside New York City), staying on the ground long enough to pick up a passenger or passengers, and then flew back to Beckley, arriving about 8 a.m., and making a return flight to Teterboro about 8 p.m.
It might be coincidence that the law firm representing the Justices against the banks is Sullivan & Cromwell of New York, headed by West Virginia native H. Rodgin Cohen.
However, we do know that Justice’s Bluestone Resources issued a statement Friday morning citing progress in negotiations with Credit Suisse after “several days of face-to-face meetings in West Virginia.”
We can speculate about the nature of the meeting in Beckley, and whether Justice, who for unexplained reasons could not be in Charleston for his regularly scheduled briefing, was in attendance.
We can also speculate on the nature of Justice’s jet making a second flight to Teterboro and back July 16.
Meanwhile, if things get “very, very difficult” for the Justices, and Justice assets are seized for loan defaults, perhaps even The Greenbrier resort, it will reflect badly not only on the Justices, but on the state of West Virginia.
If Justice truly means it when he says he wants nothing but goodness for the state, he needs to think long and hard about the long-term consequences of having a part-time, deeply distracted person trying to govern it.
For weeks, I’d been hearing rumors that new Treasurer Riley Moore was conducting a slow-motion purge of longtime employees in the Treasurer’s Office (as opposed to the lightning purge Secretary of State Mac Warner conducted when he took office, costing taxpayers nearly $3.5 million to settle the inevitable wrongful termination lawsuits).
Moore’s hiring of Saira Blair, former Republican delegate and daughter of Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, as deputy treasurer for local government July 6 at a salary of $80,000 seemed to lend credence to the rumors, so I decided to check it out.
That set me on an odyssey to overcome the lack of transparency and obscurification that permeates state government these days.
I figured the easiest and cleanest way to check on hirings and dismissals would be to pull WV11s for the Treasurer’s Office since Moore took office. (Agencies file WV11s — now called ESMTs for Employee Status Maintenance; don’t know what the “T” stands for in the acronym — anytime an individual is hired, fired, promoted, demoted, placed on leave, et. al.)
These are public documents, and I’ve never had an issue accessing them before. (Back in the day, when they were literally paper forms, I had permission from the Budget Office director to periodically go through the inbox where the WV11s were received.)
So I thought nothing of it when I put in a request to the Budget Office for the forms. When I heard nothing back, I called Director Michael Cook, who managed to be unavailable to take calls on multiple tries, and did not respond to e-mails.
Then, I got a call from Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy, who assured me staffers could turn around the request in a couple of days but needed a Freedom of Information Act request so they would have a written record. Fine.
Imagine my surprise when a few days letter, I received an e-mail from Deputy Revenue Secretary Allen Prunty denying my request on the grounds the Budget Office is not the custodian of the records requested.
(The Budget Office uses the forms for at least two purposes, to prepare the monthly state government full-time employee report and to notify agencies if a pending hire or hires would put them over budget on their personal services line item in the state budget.)
I’ve known Dave for a long time. I think he was overruled at some point on releasing the information.
A Freedom of Information Act request to the Treasurer’s Office was also rejected on the same grounds.
After much effort, I finally got the documents from the Auditor’s Office, and I have to say, of the five statewide elective officers, Auditor JB McCuskey by far is the most transparent and cooperative.
At any rate, the documents show 18 Treasurer’s Office employees have resigned, retired, had their positions eliminated or have been terminated since Moore took office. (One other, Deputy Treasurer Christina Merbedone-Byrd, resigned the week before he took office.)
Two were expected resignations of high-ranking members of longtime Treasurer John Perdue’s administration, including Assistant Treasurer Josh Stowers and Deputy Treasurer Tom Vogel.
Departures have, indeed, been gradual, with five each in February and March and four in May.
However, Moore has retained a number of high-ranking members of the Perdue administration, including Deputy Treasurers Bryan Archer, Shelly Murray, Misty Price and Gina Joynes.
Moore has hired a total of 21 employees, also at a gradual pace from February through Saira Blair’s hiring this month.
Overall, a significant amount of turnover in an office of about 130 full-time employees but so far, no consistent evidence of political hirings or dismissals.
Finally, speaking of obscurification, I was on a conference call with Justice Chief of Staff Brian Abraham and Deputy Chief of Staff Ann Urling, and asked if it would be possible to have a reporter observe the process the governor’s office uses to contact vaccination incentive sweepstakes winners in advance, which is done so Justice can personally present their prizes — a process that has drawn suspicion from the public.
After a silence so long that I initially thought the line had gone dead, Abraham said he would have to get back to me, and, naturally, never did.
I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for copies of all written documents outlining policies and procedures used by the governor’s office to contact winners.
What I received was a copy of the contest rules posted on the contest website.
It since dawned on me that part of reluctance to reveal the process is that the governor’s office uses state troopers to track down winners during that window from the Monday morning drawing at Lottery headquarters to Justice’s glad-handing across the state on Wednesdays to personally present the prizes. Troopers are used to contact winners and verify where they will be at the appointed time on giveaway day.
(This explains how Justice is able to surprise winners at their workplaces, when that information is not part of the sweepstakes entry form.)
Seems like a tremendous misallocation of resources to have law enforcement officers spending time tracking down contest winners, time that could be better spent doing things like, I don’t know, maybe enforcing the law and investigating crimes.
(I will say that through the first five weeks of the contest, all major prize winners have been the individuals drawn by the state Lottery — so far, the governor’s office has yet to pass over a winner and request the name of the first alternate for the prize.)
For the record, on Wednesday, Justice continued to use the state King Air to fly around the state handing out prizes, and at the end of the day was flown home. To Lewisburg, not Charleston.