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Pleasants Power Station

FirstEnergy’s Pleasants Power Station, in Pleasants County.

Gov. Jim Justice blew up Wednesday over a call to investigate lobbying efforts by FirstEnergy Corp. that resulted in July 2019 special session legislation giving a $12.5 million a year tax break to the company’s Pleasants Power Station.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Salango called for the investigation Wednesday in light of Tuesday’s arrest of Ohio Speaker of the House Larry Householder for allegedly accepting $60 million in bribe money from FirstEnergy operatives to push through legislation providing $1.3 billion in tax breaks to it and two other energy companies.

“The way FirstEnergy has conducted business with elected officials in our neighboring state of Ohio begs questions about their dealings with Gov. Justice and the state of West Virginia,” Salango said in a release Wednesday. “This absolutely warrants more information from Justice.”

Federal Election Commission records show FirstEnergy made campaign contributions to Justice and a number of state legislators in the spring and summer of 2019, leading up to the July special session, in which the Pleasants County power plant tax break was a last-minute addition to Justice’s special session call.

“Good gracious,” Justice remarked, when asked about Salango’s request during Wednesday’s COVID-19 briefing.

“First of all, anybody and everybody who knows Ben Salango knows he’s a Nancy Pelosi liberal trial lawyer,” Justice declared.

Justice said there’s “no chance in the world” he could be influenced by campaign contributions, noting, “I self-fund an incredible amount of my campaign.”

After the special session, it was revealed the FirstEnergy had a $3.1 million lawsuit pending against one of Justice’s coal companies, Bluestone Energy, claiming the company had refused to buy back coal stockpiles.

Justice on Wednesday said the legislation, designed to keep the coal-fired power plant open, preserving 160 jobs, was a “terrific decision.”

Critics questioned whether the tax breaks would provide long-term viability for an antiquated coal-fired power plant. Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, said at the time that if the plant closes in two or three years, the legislation would ultimately prove to be “another corporate giveaway,” not a job-saver.

On Tuesday, federal authorities arrested Householder, and the federal complaint charges that he and four others set up a “criminal enterprise” to obtain $60 million of bribe money from FirstEnergy operatives for passage of legislation to provide a $1.3 billion bailout to FirstEnergy and other power companies that own nuclear power plants in the state.

Justice on Wednesday denounced Salango’s call for an investigation of FirstEnergy’s dealings with West Virginia officials as being politically motivated.

“You have got a desperate candidate who is so far behind in the polls that we’re about to lap him,” Justice said.

Justice went on to chastise the reporter for asking a political question during the COVID-19 briefing, saying, “This hearing is not for politics. This hearing is to tend to this terrible killer that’s eating us alive.”

Justice, however, has frequently used the briefings as a political forum.

Most recently, he denounced Republicans in the House of Delegates who are siding with House Democrats in calling for a special session on spending $1.25 billion of federal CARES Act funds as “outcasts and oddballs,” contending that Democrats want to “grandstand” during a special session in hopes of defeating Republican incumbents in the November election.

“If they don’t watch out, they’re going to gut their entire party,” Justice said at time.

Justice has also frequently used the briefings to heap praise on President Donald Trump.

As recently as Monday, Justice said Trump has done a “marvelous job” handling the COVID-19 pandemic, while subsequently bemoaning the fact that the United States has a much higher COVID-19 death rate than countries such as South Korea.

Asked to respond to Justice’s comments, Salango said, “I’ve never met Nancy Pelosi. I wouldn’t be able to pick her out of a lineup. I am a trial lawyer and, for many years, I have represented those who’ve been victims of greed and corruption. But, as we all know, Jim Justice actually has more courtroom experience than I do because he doesn’t pay his bills.”

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.