Gov. Jim Justice called a news conference Monday at which state Department of Revenue officials said the governor’s coal companies have paid back taxes and penalties in full.
Justice, meanwhile, used the news conference to again blast the Gazette-Mail for reporting what he described as bad news about the state — using as an example a recent story about the governor’s coal companies being fined more than $100,000 by the state Public Service Commission.
State Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy said that as of 1:30 p.m. Monday, the state had received payment in full for all taxes owed by companies owned by Justice and currently operated by his son, Jay.
Citing taxpayer confidentiality laws, Hardy said he could not disclose the total amount of payments.
“I can say it resolves all outstanding issues with the state of West Virginia, and that includes penalties and fines,” Hardy said.
Justice himself said he didn’t know the total dollar figure for the payments.
“I know it’s millions of dollars, and I know my feelings are that it’s dollars paid that someone else owed,” he said.
Deputy Revenue Secretary Allen Prunty said individual liens against Justice’s companies have been well publicized, adding that Justice incurred “substantial liability” when he repurchased Bluestone Coal from Mechel OAO, a Russian mining and metals conglomerate, in 2015.
In a 2016 investigative series, NPR reported that Justice’s companies owed $15 million in six states for mine safety penalties, state coal severance and withholding taxes and property taxes, among other things. In their report, NPR reporters only included taxes and fines incurred by Justice’s companies when he owned them.
Monday’s news conference came more than three months after Justice first told reporters on May 4 that the back taxes would be paid “in a matter of days.”
“We’ll be able to report to you that every single tax owed by any of my affiliates in West Virginia are paid, and are paid in full,” he said then.
On Monday, Justice said similar debts in Virginia and Kentucky will “see the same outcome.” Among the debts in those states are a reported $2.9 million in Kentucky property taxes as of February; an alleged failure to pay a $1 million settlement of a federal lawsuit in Kentucky; and about $450,000 in unpaid property taxes on three historic Virginia properties.
Justice reiterated that he could have “cleansed” the debts by filing for bankruptcy, as many coal operators have done, but said he did not want to harm small rural counties such as Wyoming and McDowell that rely on the taxes, or leave reclamation sites unclaimed.
Justice said it was difficult, noting, “Along the way, you’d walk the streets, and somebody would yell at you, ‘Why don’t you pay your taxes?’”
He suggested that a lot of those “casting stones” did so out of partisan politics, contending that Democrats have “bitter feelings about me changing parties.” Justice ran for governor as a Democrat, but changed his party affiliation back to Republican a year ago, eight months after he took office.
Justice said in January 2017 that he wanted to place his assets in a blind trust, but has never done so for the vast majority of his companies. He said Monday it would be up to his son to disclose total amounts paid, and suggested that it would not be in his best interest to do so, since it could be misconstrued to portray the payments in a negative light.
“The thing that’s always bothersome to me is someone is always looking for a tidbit of something on the negative side, and that’s all we want to write or do,” he said. “I am referring to only one organization, and that’s the Charleston Gazette. Everyone else, you do your job and you do it well.”
As a “perfect example,” Justice cited a July 29 Gazette-Mail article stating that the Public Service Commission had fined Justice-owned coal companies $114,100 for failing to report or inaccurately reporting coal truck shipments to avoid state coal transportation tonnage fees.
“To be honest, it was right. It was exactly right,” he said of the offending article.
Justice complained that the Gazette-Mail’s type of reporting “drives people away” and discourages others from coming to West Virginia.
“When every day you pick up, and all you do is read the ‘Doom and Gloom Chronicle,’ it drives people away,” Justice said. “Now, we have to stop that. We’ve got to report the bad when the bad’s bad, but we best start reporting the good when the good’s good.”