Though Gov. Jim Justice said in January he would put his assets into a blind trust, nine months have passed, and only two of the more than 100 companies he owns have found their way into such an arrangement.
Meanwhile, the Legislature passed a law at its special session last week that could hand hefty tax credits over to one of Justice’s flagship assets — The Greenbrier resort.
In an interview Thursday, Justice said he didn’t have much of an update to offer regarding any new blind trust agreements, except for a March arrangement in which he put his interests in the companies that control the Glade Springs and Wintergreen resorts into blind trusts.
“Not really; I’m removed from that,” he said of progress on the rest of his assets. “I know we’ve got Glade into a blind trust, and I know people are working on it, but you know, I’ve said it over and over and over, at the end of the day, I don’t want a thing for me. I surely don’t need anything for my businesses, or for me. I took this job for the people, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
A blind trust is a financial arrangement designed to remove benefactors from potential conflicts of interest by keeping them unaware of management decisions and unable to intervene.
Freedom of Information Act requests filed with the state Ethics Commission — which needs to approve any blind trust agreement for government officials — and the Governor’s Office for correspondence regarding moving his assets into a blind trust show there has been no such discourse in any substantive way since March.
House Bill 203, which was en route to Justice’s desk as of Saturday, would allow entities controlling historic structures making rehabilitation expenditures to receive up to 25 percent of the cost of the projects as a tax credit, upon approval by state and federal historic regulators. Current law has that number at 10 percent.
The proposed law, which will sunset after five years, caps a project at receiving no more than $10 million in the credits, among other provisions. It sailed through both chambers of the Legislature, passing the House in a 91-3 vote and the Senate 33-0. Multiple legislators voiced excitement for the project and potential expansion during the regular legislative session.
Justice’s financial disclosure filed with the Ethics Commission shows The Greenbrier is just one of a long list of assets yet to be covered by a blind trust agreement.
According to The Greenbrier’s website, the resort has three restoration projects in the works: its east and west terrace suites, built in 1931; the Florida Legacy Cottage, built in 1858; its botanical gardens; and the Dorothy Draper suite.
Justice’s daughter, Jill Justice, currently is president of the resort.
In a November 2016 story in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who studies governmental ethics and transparency, said a politician giving his or her child control of a business does not eliminate conflicts of interest and does not qualify as a blind trust.
Elmer Coppoolse, chief operating officer of The Greenbrier, said Friday he had not yet heard about the bill and did not know if the resort would seize the credits, should they become available.
When asked, Justice said he hadn’t considered how the bill could be beneficial to The Greenbrier. He said, when he added it to his special session call, he had in mind the restoration of older buildings for tourism purposes.
“It could possibly be [beneficial to The Greenbrier], but, to be perfectly honest, until you mentioned that right here, I had never thought of that before,” he said. “Never ever thought one time about the ability to do something with the historical buildings. I was thinking more about Huntington — places like that.”
He also said he would not make any sort of promise that the resort would refrain from seizing the tax credits.
“The Greenbrier is a very important entity within the state of West Virginia, and The Greenbrier needs to work on their own grounds,” he said. “I’m sure if there’s things available to the state that The Greenbrier can capitalize on, The Greenbrier should be able to do that.”
The bill does offer some protections against big projects sucking up all the funding. House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, said of the $30 million allotted from the state for the credits, the bill sets aside $5 million specifically for projects seeking credits less than $500,000.
However, Justice said, whatever it might look like from the outside, he’s governing for the people, not for his own benefit.
“Just always remember, whether you ask about blind trusts, or whether you ask about, you know, the historical benefits of The Greenbrier, which came out of left field, try, if you can, to remember always that I truly don’t want a thing,” he said. “There’s nothing anybody can do that will help me, in this office.”