After announcing that West Virginia will try to provide $1.1 million to receive $10 million in federal funding for runway safety area improvements at Huntington Tri-State Airport, Gov. Jim Justice criticized a lawsuit to compel him to live in Charleston, as well as a Gazette-Mail/ProPublica investigation of his ethical entanglements as owner of The Greenbrier resort.
He also defended the pending award of a nearly $200,000 consulting contract to two retired Division of Highways engineers to advise the division on secondary roads maintenance efforts. Asked about the pending contract, to a Parkersburg company formed in May by retired district engineer/managers James “Rusty” Roten and Thomas Badgett, Justice said he couldn’t speak directly to reasons why the division is hiring consultants.
“I can tell you, at the end of the day, we’ve done more for highways in the state of West Virginia than has ever been done,” he said. “If they hire some consultants to make everything work better, so be it.”
In March, in response to complaints about crumbling secondary roads statewide, Justice fired Transportation Secretary Tom Smith, a 37-year veteran of the Federal Highways Administration, and replaced him with Byrd White, a longtime friend and business associate whose background is in accounting.
Justice also backed appropriation bills transferring $104 million in 2018-19 budget surplus to Highways for secondary road repairs.
Unlike most of his news conferences, Justice did not take questions from the media on Tuesday, but he did field some questions from reporters after the news conference ended.
Asked about the Gazette-Mail/ProPublica exposé published Sunday detailing conflicts of interest resulting from Justice’s failure to place business assets, including The Greenbrier, into blind trusts, the governor said, “I think the Charleston Gazette has become the Charleston Enquirer. That’s the best I can tell you.”
Justice, who had rebuffed numerous requests to be interviewed for Sunday’s report, criticized the paper, saying, “They’re a waste of time. They make no news; all they do is try to throw garbage.”
He did not directly address the issues raised in the report.
Also, on the eve of a hearing in Kanawha Circuit Court regarding a lawsuit by Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, to compel Justice to comply with a provision in the state Constitution requiring the governor to reside at the seat of government, Justice again dismissed the lawsuit as “a political nothing.”
“This is a total waste of time,” the governor said. “This is a publicity stunt by Sponaugle, who’s done nothing for his area.”
Sponaugle, a lawyer, filed the lawsuit as a private citizen seeking to compel Justice to abide by the constitutional residency requirement for governors and other statewide elected officers. He contends that Justice’s frequent absences from Charleston have affected his performance as governor, a claim that Justice repeatedly has dismissed.
“From time to time, if it’s convenient, I surely stay there, but I’m all over the state all the time,” Justice said Tuesday, referring to the Governor’s Mansion.
“If it’s not convenient, and I can stay in my own bed, then I want to stay in my own bed, but I’m down here nonstop,” Justice said of Charleston.
He has made no secret that he primarily resides at his home in Lewisburg.
On Tuesday, Justice announced that he is directing the Department of Commerce to formally request more than $1.1 million in funding from the state Infrastructure Jobs Development Council to draw down a $10 million Federal Aviation Administration grant for improvements to the runway safety area at Tri-State Airport.
The project will require moving more than 1.2 million cubic yards of soil to stabilize an area beyond the south end of the runway.
“Airports are our heart, they’re our lifeblood, they’re the very first thing that we have to have to start growth,” Justice said during the announcement at the Capitol. “I always believed it’s just this way: It’s airports, it’s schools and it’s roads. And then, from there, all the other stuff just seems to fall in place.”