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Welcome to The Greenbrier, the governor-owned luxury resort filled with conflicts of interest

  • 22 min to read
Welcome to The Greenbrier, the governor-owned luxury resort filled with conflicts of interest

On a sunny Monday afternoon two and a half years ago, Jim Justice, the wealthiest man in West Virginia, took the oath of office as the state’s 36th governor.

Standing at the base of the Capitol steps in Charleston, he assured his fellow West Virginians that his vast business empire of coal mines, vacation resorts and agricultural companies — many of them regulated by the state agencies he would soon control — posed no conflicts with his new job.

“I want absolutely nothing. Nothing,” Justice said. “I don’t want a thing for me or my family in any way. All I want is goodness for this incredible state and its incredible people.”

Hours later, the new governor held his inaugural ball, not at a Charleston hotel or the local civic center, as his predecessors long had, but at The Greenbrier, a palatial resort 120 miles from the Capitol.

The hotel’s owner: Jim Justice.

Thousands of guests mingled across The Greenbrier’s multiple ballrooms and ornate lobbies, feasting on a local-inspired menu that included fried chicken and ham biscuits. Some tried their luck at the resort’s casino.

In the 12,000-square-foot Colonial Hall, Lionel Richie serenaded the first couple with his 1977 Commodores’ hit “Easy.” “Do it, Jim! Do it, Jim!” the singer coaxed, as Justice and his wife, Cathy, slow-danced on the stage.

Partygoers paid $75 each for tickets. But the tab was largely picked up by industry leaders, statehouse lobbyists and a variety of special interest groups, each contributing thousands of dollars to the governor’s inaugural committee to fund the lavish festivities.

All told, more than $1 million — half of the inaugural fund — went to Justice’s Greenbrier Hotel Corp., according to financial reports filed with the Secretary of State’s Office.

State ethics officials have described the arrangement as perfectly legal. Private dollars funded the event, and no public money flowed to the inaugural committee. But they also say West Virginia laws never contemplated someone like Jim Justice.

With his decision to hold the ball at The Greenbrier, Justice ushered in a new era of politics in West Virginia, one in which it’s hard to tell where the governor’s business interests end and state government begins.

JUSTICE INAUGURATION3

Standing next to his wife, Cathy, Gov. Jim Justice speaks to supporters during his inaugural ball, held at The Greenbrier resort on Jan. 16, 2017.

The billionaire now faces a complicated ethical landscape with striking similarities to the entanglements surrounding his Republican political ally, President Donald Trump. A corporate executive whose most recent financial disclosure listed 130 separate business entities, Justice early in his term said he had turned over day-to-day control of his businesses to his adult children. But, like Trump, he stopped short of placing most of his assets in a blind trust that would have shielded him from at least the appearance of conflicts.

Today, Justice’s coal mines are inspected by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, agencies whose top employees the governor appoints. And his casino is regulated by West Virginia’s Lottery Commission, another agency under the chief executive’s control.

The Greenbrier represents only a slice of Justice’s holdings, estimated by Forbes to be worth as much as $1.5 billion. But the iconic resort’s outsized role in West Virginia politics has made it an unparalleled ethical thicket for the governor.

Before taking office, Justice benefited from a number of state agencies, as well as special interest groups, using his resort to host marquee meetings, retreats and conferences. In 2015, the state spent more than $260,000 there. So, to avoid conflicts of interest as governor, his administration says it imposed a “moratorium” on state spending at The Greenbrier.

But a Charleston Gazette-Mail and ProPublica investigation has found that Justice continues to profit from state business, with agencies spending more than $106,000 at his resort since he took office. The Tourism Office features The Greenbrier in a state advertising campaign that launched last year.

Meanwhile, some of West Virginia’s most powerful trade groups are increasingly picking up the food and lodging tabs for lawmakers, as well as top state agency officials subject to the administration’s spending ban, according to a review of lobbyist disclosure reports filed with the state Ethics Commission. Outlays from the state Chamber of Commerce, for instance, more than tripled during Justice’s first year in office.

And as The Greenbrier has faced serious financial pressures, from a major flood and a legal battle with insurers, Justice has used the power of his office to help ensure its survival.

Last year, as the state’s chief executive, he decided to include The Greenbrier in a federal “opportunity zone.” Intended to help underdeveloped communities, the designation makes new investments in the targeted area eligible for lucrative tax breaks.

At the same time, Justice and Greenbrier officials sought additional assistance from Greenbrier County, where the resort has long been the largest employer. Working together, they pressed county commissioners to set aside more than $10 million in taxpayer funds to finance or jump-start projects related to The Greenbrier. The proposed upgrades range from a new laundry to a long-planned ski area.

The Governor’s Office did not respond to multiple requests for an interview with Justice, but queries were referred to a spokesman for Justice’s companies.

In a prepared response to written questions from the Gazette-Mail and ProPublica, spokesman Richard Cullen Jr. said, “Mr. Justice has every right to have business interests as governor and he will continue to demonstrate great sensitivity to ethical considerations.”

For much of the past two and a half years, the governor has weathered public scrutiny as his businesses wrestled with state and federal regulators over fines and penalties, with vendors over missed payments and with tax officials in West Virginia and other states over delinquent corporate taxes. But as Justice prepares to face voters again next year, the intermingling of The Greenbrier with West Virginia government is causing growing legal and political headaches.

“It’s wrong,” said U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat who supported Justice in 2016 but split with him when the governor switched to the GOP less than a year after taking office. Manchin attended the inaugural ball and his political committee donated $2,500 to the event, although he now condemns Justice’s decision to use his own resort.

“It’s called public service, not self-service,” Manchin said. “This sort of stuff is not who we are.”

Complicating matters, in March, prosecutors from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section issued a subpoena for state Commerce Department records concerning the administration’s dealings with The Greenbrier. Weeks later, investigators subpoenaed more records, this time from the state Department of Revenue and its Tax Division, about the resolution of a multimillion-dollar tax debt related to the governor’s businesses.

Justice has denied any wrongdoing.

“In an organization as big as our organization, you’re surely going to be able to find something that doesn’t look right or whatever,” the governor said during an April news conference. “But I promise you to God above … you’re never going to find anything that Jim Justice has purposely done to benefit Jim Justice.”

The Greenbrier 2

The Greenbrier resort is tucked into a valley where the rolling foothills and farmlands of Virginia meet the mountains of West Virginia.

‘The Emerald City’

James C. Justice II grew up in Raleigh County, not far from The Greenbrier, and still lives in nearby Lewisburg, just a 15-minute drive from the resort. Born in 1951, he came of age during the height of the Cold War, a time when the federal government was secretly building a bunker beneath The Greenbrier, where the nation’s leaders would shelter in the event of a nuclear attack.

Justice’s father was a coal operator and, as a teenager, Justice played golf at the resort. He told his friends it was like Oz, the Emerald City, according to a 2011 interview with The Washington Post.

Justice joined his father’s business in 1976, when he was 25, and expanded into farming corn, wheat and soybeans. When James Sr. died in 1993, his son took charge.

“Over the next 15 years, Jim launched a massive expansion of multiple businesses which included significant coal reserve expansion, Christmas tree farms, cotton gins, turfgrass operations, golf courses, timber enhancement and land projects just to mention a few,” his official biography says. According to the Governor’s Office, Justice is now the largest farmer east of the Mississippi, with holdings in West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

The most visible expansion of Justice’s empire, however, came in 2009, when he purchased The Greenbrier, one of the nation’s top luxury hotels. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 700-room resort has hosted 27 presidents.

Hit by a global recession after several years of expensive renovations, the resort was in financial peril. Its longtime owner, railroad company CSX Corp., laid off half the staff and filed for bankruptcy, disclosing in its court filing that the property had lost $90 million over the previous five years.

Marriott International had agreed to step in, but Justice also saw an opportunity.

He had recently sold much of his family’s coal holdings to the Russian firm Mechel in a transaction valued at more than $568 million. The billionaire quickly cut a deal to pay CSX $20 million for The Greenbrier and give Marriott a $7.5 million “breakup fee.”

The move instantly raised Justice’s profile, turning the president of a privately held family coal operation into a bit of a celebrity. The Gazette-Mail named him “West Virginian of the Year,” largely because it credited him with saving The Greenbrier.

Within months of his purchase, though, Justice turned to the state for help. Specifically, he wanted $8 million to lure the PGA Tour to his resort for a new professional golf tournament. He argued that such an event would draw thousands of visitors and a giant television audience. Keith Burdette, a former state senator who was then serving as state Commerce secretary, balked at the amount Justice was seeking. “I just said, ‘No, we can’t do that,’ ” he recalled in an interview.

Still, in 2010, the state ultimately kicked in $1 million and, the next year, it began a lucrative sponsorship that gave state officials access to blocks of rooms and seats on the 18th green, perks that could be used to help woo potential new businesses to West Virginia. Over the next five years, West Virginia contributed an additional $9.3 million to sponsor the popular tournament, according to a review of state spending records and documents that were turned over to a federal grand jury.

Later, Justice’s company successfully lobbied for additional assistance, supporting new state tourism programs that qualified The Greenbrier for up to $15 million in tax breaks. The money served to offset the cost of resort improvements, including an NFL training camp facility and a championship tennis stadium, but the exact amount it received won’t be known until December, when a new disclosure law takes effect.

Jim Justice Friends of Coal

Justice’s official Twitter account shared this photo of the governor speaking at the West Virginia Coal Association’s annual meeting, held Aug. 4, at The Greenbrier.

‘America’s Resort,’ a political liability

Tucked into a valley where the rolling foothills and farmlands of Virginia meet the mountains of West Virginia, The Greenbrier resort has been a central character in the region’s economic and political story for nearly two centuries.

The first large hotel was constructed in the 1850s, becoming a popular playground for, as the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd once put it, “the great and the near-great.” The Rev. Billy Graham, Bing Crosby and Babe Ruth were guests. Among the regulars were prominent politicians, judges, diplomats and socialites.

Today, The Greenbrier calls itself “America’s Resort.” Over the years, the sprawling property was redesigned to evoke Mount Vernon, George Washington’s historic home. A standard room costs $300 a night.

Guests can bowl or play croquet, fish or go skeet shooting, ride horses or learn falconry. For decades, two of the state’s most powerful interest groups, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the West Virginia Coal Association, have used the hotel to host their annual meetings.

“The Greenbrier is great, and it’s one of those places that our people just look forward to going every year,” said Bill Raney, the coal association’s president. “It’s got a long, long history with this industry.”

Justice deepened the resort’s role in West Virginia power circles with the PGA Tour event, which became a key part of the state’s efforts to lure new businesses and jobs.

“There was virtually no recruiting effort that took place during those years when the company we were recruiting didn’t come through the door because of The Greenbrier Classic,” Burdette said.

But not everyone saw the merits of more than $10 million in taxpayer money going to a golf tournament. Early on, some Republican leaders tried to block state funding, arguing that it would be better spent on public infrastructure.

And the further Justice stepped into politics, the bigger a liability the golf sponsorship became.

In early 2015, Justice — a Republican for much of his life — changed his party affiliation to Democrat and promptly declared his bid for governor. He touted The Greenbrier as proof of his business savvy, but his primary opponents picked at the golf tournament, objecting to the state’s financial contributions.

Justice won the Democratic nomination anyway, and as he entered the 2016 general election, he rejected the public funding. “I refuse to listen to the Republican leaders beat up on me,” he said in a campaign statement.

But that didn’t stop GOP nominee Bill Cole. The Republican continued to pound away, saying the golf tournament was just scratching the surface of Justice’s conflicts.

“I think his interactions with state government are huge,” Cole told West Virginia MetroNews at the time. “I see in every aspect of his business, there’s troubling connections.”

Even as his candidate financial disclosure form listed a dozen agencies doing business with The Greenbrier, Justice dismissed the criticism.

Throughout the race, he seemed to double-down on his resort ownership. One campaign ad, featuring Greenbrier employees, touted his success turning the resort around. “He’s done so much for The Greenbrier,” a voiceover said. “Imagine what he could do for the state.”

Justice used the resort for two major fundraisers that earned nearly $270,000 for his campaign. Separately, he donated $223,000 from the resort to the gubernatorial bid, in the form of rooms, catering and entertainment.

That November, Justice won the election. The Greenbrier, however, was in trouble.

A series of strong thunderstorms had brought a major flood across the Greenbrier River Valley. Nearly two-dozen West Virginians died. Hundreds lost their homes and businesses.

The summer storms severely damaged the resort’s golf courses, the hotel and surrounding buildings. The casino was flooded. Work to sell more luxury homes in the nearby Greenbrier Sporting Club ceased, as did plans to construct a ski area for resort guests, hotel lawyers later said in court documents.

But Justice called on tourists to return. “We will not go quietly into the darkness,” Justice said when the resort reopened in July.

The Greenbrier 1

The Greenbrier has been popular with generations of celebrities, prominent politicians, diplomats and socialites. Guests have included the Rev. Billy Graham, Bing Crosby and Babe Ruth.

‘The biggest house in the state’

Five months later, as Justice transitioned to the Governor’s Office, he chose his resort as the site of his inaugural ball. He appointed his wife, Cathy, and his daughter, Jill, both of whom held positions with The Greenbrier, as co-chairs of the inaugural committee.

Nick Casey, a longtime Democratic Party leader and treasurer of the committee, said he briefly raised the issue of a potential conflict of interest with Justice and his family.

“I said, ‘Can we spend this money on somewhere the guy owns?’ ” Casey recalled in a recent interview. “But there weren’t any detailed discussions. He said, ‘No, we’ll do it at The Greenbrier.’ ”

Cullen, the Justice companies spokesman, noted that The Greenbrier is a “premier destination, not just in West Virginia, but the entire country,” and is “a big part of the state’s history and employs thousands of people.”

“Governor Justice is proud of that history and his family’s role in it,” Cullen said. “There was never a discussion about having the [inaugural ball] anywhere else.”

If anyone was troubled by the decision, few said so publicly at the time. Donations poured in to the committee, with Justice easily raising more than twice the amount his immediate predecessors had.

But privately, some prominent powerbrokers wondered about a potential conflict.

“I was like: ‘Isn’t that interesting? What is the reaction to that going to be?’ ” said Steve Roberts, president of the state Chamber of Commerce, which had endorsed Justice’s Republican opponent. Roberts said he considered not attending the inaugural ball. “But at the end of the day, this person is going to be governor for four years, and no one wants to be the one person who is left out.”

He added, “If I had the biggest house in the state and could have people over, I would do it.”

When The Herald-Dispatch newspaper, in Huntington, asked the Ethics Commission about the inaugural, agency staff members said the event fell outside their jurisdiction; the committee members weren’t public officials and they weren’t spending public money.

“A governor becomes subject to the [Ethics] Act when he is sworn in as a public official,” Ethics Commission Executive Director Rebecca Stepto later told the Gazette-Mail and ProPublica.

For Justice, that moment came hours before the Jan. 16, 2017, ceremony at the Capitol. Standing before dozens of spectators in the chapel at The Greenbrier, he took the oath of office just after midnight as his resort livestreamed the ceremony on Facebook.

The Greenbrier’s Twitter account posted a photo of Justice with the hashtag “WVHistory.”

Over the next six months, as Justice served in the Governor’s Office, the inaugural committee paid his resort more than $800,000 for “entertainment and meals” at the ball.

The Gazette-Mail and ProPublica asked the Ethics Commission if those payments — made after Justice took office — constituted a violation of the West Virginia law that bars public officials from using their office for private gain.

“This is not a situation contemplated or covered by the Ethics Act,” Stepto said in an email response.

State law encourages inaugural committees to zero out their balances by giving to a charity or a special fund aimed at preserving the state’s historic Governor’s Mansion. Justice’s two predecessors, Manchin and Earl Ray Tomblin, both donated tens of thousands of dollars of leftover money to the latter. Justice’s inaugural committee, however, chose another route.

It closed out its accounts on June 1, 2017, with a $113,000 payment to The Greenbrier.

Casey said the inaugural ball likely left the resort with uncompensated expenses. “I think they ended up saying, ‘How much do you have left?’ and they billed us for that amount,” he said.

Cullen, the Justice companies spokesman, would say only that The Greenbrier charged the inaugural committee “negotiated rates,” as he said it does “with any large event.”

‘Even the slightest whiff of a conflict won’t fly’

Two weeks after he took office, Justice sent a letter to all state employees, seeking to reassure the West Virginia workforce that, as a “full-time” governor, he was dedicated to public service.

“The last thing I want is a conflict of interest between my family’s business and state government,” the letter said. “Even the slightest whiff of a conflict won’t fly with me.”

In an arrangement that echoed that of Trump, Justice said he had put his adult children in charge of day-to-day operations. He also noted that he was exploring a blind trust. But Justice waved off any suggestion of selling his businesses, equating that with shuttering them. “It would mean good people would lose their jobs and that just wouldn’t be right.”

To be sure, West Virginia’s ethics law does not require public officials to divest from their business or financial interests, or to place their holdings into a blind trust; they simply need to report those assets on their annual financial disclosure forms. But historically, governors have taken the extra steps to avoid the appearance of conflicts. Both Jay Rockefeller, heir to an oil fortune, and Gaston Caperton, who owned one of the largest insurance companies in the nation, used blind trusts when they were governor.

The Greenbrier 3

West Virginia economic developers have long used The Greenbrier as a gathering place to try to lure new companies and jobs into the state, with Justice’s administration creating difficult conflicts of interest for such efforts.

Instead, Justice told state employees that he expected them to regulate his businesses like any other. “I assure you,” he wrote in his letter, “there is absolutely no expectation on behalf of the members of my family of receiving any special treatment.”

Two days later, in his first financial disclosure report as governor, Justice reported that The Greenbrier was still doing business with a handful of government agencies. State law prohibits public officials from having a financial interest in government contracts they control, so Justice administration officials said they issued a “moratorium” on state spending at The Greenbrier.

As a result, resort revenue from the state government dropped considerably. “If avoiding conflicts costs the family businesses money,” Cullen said, “they will opt for the ethical decision every time.”

But, according to a ProPublica and Gazette-Mail review of financial data from the West Virginia Auditor’s Office, more than two-dozen state agencies went on to purchase meals and lodging at the resort during Justice’s tenure, spending a combined total of more than $106,000. Colleges and universities accounted for nearly three-quarters of the amount.

Asked about the spending, Brian Abraham, Justice’s general counsel, told the Gazette-Mail that the Governor’s Office would “re-educate” state agencies on its moratorium, but that it did not have the authority to regulate university outlays. The Ethics Commission seemed to agree, telling West Virginia University that, while college board members are appointed by the governor, they don’t serve at his “will and pleasure,” like other appointees.

Other potential conflicts soon emerged.

In June 2017, the West Virginia Commerce Department sought special permission to restart its sponsorship of The Greenbrier Classic golf tournament. The bid aimed to restore the public funding that Justice had rejected as a candidate the previous summer. In a letter to the Ethics Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, lawyer Josh Jarrell argued that, without a prominent role in the tournament, the Commerce Department would lose the kind of access it needed to attract firms to West Virginia.

In a sign of the sensitivity of the matter, he noted that the Commerce Department had “not received any requests or direction from the current administration to initiate any efforts” to seek the ethics exemption.

To obtain such waivers, agencies must show the public will suffer “excessive cost, undue hardship or other substantial interference.” Exemptions are more commonly approved for small-town governments, so they can, for example, buy supplies at a local store owned by a council member.

But when news reports emerged describing the administration’s effort to use state money to woo CEOs at the governor’s resort, Justice squashed the Commerce initiative.

“Since I am the governor and have a vested interest in The Greenbrier, I do not want to be involved,” Justice said in a news release. “There is no need to cloud such an important economic and promotional event for our state.”

Still, two months later, the Commerce Department returned to the Ethics Commission with another request. This time, it won approval to spend $5,000 for the registration fee to attend the Chamber of Commerce’s annual Business Summit at The Greenbrier; a portion of the fee went to the resort. Ethics officials, however, refused to allow state funds to be spent for government employees to stay or eat at the property.

Later, the Tourism Office won permission to include The Greenbrier in a new advertising program designed to promote the state’s hospitality industry. Private companies pay for membership and the state matches those contributions. Justice’s hotel soon became the program’s largest participant, kicking in $176,000 for the ad campaign in its first two years.

The Ethics Commission ultimately deferred to the Tourism Office’s argument that The Greenbrier was “key to promoting West Virginia and achieving its mission.” In addition to matching the hotel’s contribution, the agency features the resort as the opening image on its “Where to Stay” website.

Jim Justice and Donald Trump

President Donald Trump looks on as Gov. Jim Justice speaks during Trump’s political rally inside the Big Sandy Superstore Arena, in Huntington, on Aug. 3, 2017.

‘There’s no point in dancing around the goal’

In August 2017, when Trump came to Huntington, West Virginia, for a political rally, Justice joined him on stage. The governor — “Big Jim,” as the president called him — announced that he was again changing parties, to rejoin the GOP.

Justice told the crowd that he had gone turkey hunting and trout fishing with Donald Trump Jr. and visited the president in the Oval Office.

“This man and myself are not politicians,” Justice said. “We ran to get something done, and we gave up part of our lives. We ran because we want nothing. We ran as our Founding Fathers did years and years ago, to serve.”

Left unspoken was another similarity between the two businessmen-turned-politicians: Their forays into government brought personal profits. Much as foreign dignitaries helped the bottom line for Trump’s hotel in Washington, West Virginia special interests gave The Greenbrier its own boost.

In the Justice era, as government expenditures at the resort dropped, some of the state’s most powerful lobby groups are spending more to host government officials there, according to a Gazette-Mail and ProPublica review of lobbyist disclosure reports filed with the state Ethics Commission.

The Chamber of Commerce and the Coal Association have picked up the tab for a growing number of state officials to attend events at The Greenbrier. The list includes lawmakers, Cabinet secretaries and key staffers in the Governor’s Office.

Over Labor Day weekend in 2017, for example, after the Ethics Commission warned Commerce Department officials not to spend state money on lodging and meals at the Chamber’s summit, the Chamber covered food for Woody Thrasher, the department’s secretary; Chelsea Ruby, its tourism commissioner; and two officials from its Development Office. (Thrasher, through a spokeswoman, said he didn’t realize the Chamber was paying for his staff’s meals.)

Other beneficiaries included Mike Hall, Justice’s chief of staff. The Chamber paid nearly $1,000 for his two-night stay at The Greenbrier. The group spent another $397 to cover one night for Austin Caperton, Justice’s secretary for the state Department of Environmental Protection. In all, the Chamber doled out nearly $10,000 for 21 state officials to attend its annual meeting — more than three times more than in 2015, before Justice ran for governor.

Likewise, the coal association spent $3,600 for state officials to attend its annual meeting last year, more than twice what it spent in 2015.

These actions are entirely legal. While West Virginia law prohibits public officials from accepting gifts, it allows them to accept “reasonable expenses for food, travel and lodging” for a meeting where the official is a speaker or on a panel.

Abraham, Justice’s general counsel, said the same interactions between state officials and business groups happened under previous administrations, but the state paid the bills back then.

“We certainly can’t control where independent organizations decide to schedule their conferences,” Abraham said this week.

Lobbyists say the increased spending at The Greenbrier has nothing to do with Justice or his ownership of the resort.

“We just try to get people who have some influence over us and who our members might want to hear from,” said Raney, president of the Coal Association. “I can’t tell you there has been any change of mind.”

The Chamber agrees.

“There’s no point in dancing around the goal. The goal is to have a relationship with as many people who are making decisions about the state as we can,” said Roberts, the group’s president. “The ideal would be for the state to make those people available, but that has not been our experience.”

A helping hand for The Greenbrier

The 2016 floods precipitated an unraveling at The Greenbrier.

Justice and his hospitality firms became embroiled in a protracted fight with insurers over compensation for storm damage; they later alleged in federal court that the failure to pay $75 million in claims had pushed The Greenbrier to “near financial insolvency.” (The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed on a technicality.)

At the same time, the resort struggled to find the money to sponsor The Greenbrier Classic, and it lost its prime Fourth of July placement on the PGA Tour schedule.

Amid the financial scramble, in May 2018, Justice announced a new effort that he said would “help to revitalize many areas across West Virginia.”

Opportunity zones were the result of Trump’s federal tax overhaul; governors in each state could select a certain number of poor census tracts, and investors who supported projects in those areas would be eligible for lucrative tax credits.

“This is more great news for our state,” Justice said, releasing a list of 55 opportunity zones.

At the bottom of the first page was the city of White Sulphur Springs, the storm-ravaged home of The Greenbrier. Local officials who applied for the program are hoping it brings new shops and other businesses to a downtown area struggling to rebuild after the flood. But Samantha Jacoby, a tax analyst who has studied opportunity zones for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says the designation could also benefit Justice and his resort.

Some sites in other opportunity zones, she noted, have seen rising property values and could have easier access to credit. And while firms that operate “sin” businesses, such as casinos and liquor stores, face restrictions, some have found loopholes. “It’s not, I don’t think, what was intended,” Jacoby said.

Cullen declined to comment on the governor’s selection.

That same month, Justice sought to advance a separate tax plan to boost the resort.

He wanted Greenbrier County to divert as much as $10 million in property tax revenue to help finance various resort projects, including a ski area and a new laundry. Because Justice owned the resort and the deal would need to be approved by his Commerce Department, he sought an advisory opinion from the Ethics Commission.

But, in an illustration of how the governor’s administration and his business empire can work hand in hand to advance Justice’s corporate agenda, the governor did not write the letter.

According to public records and interviews, Greenbrier lawyers penned the request to the Ethics Commission and took it to the Governor’s Office, where staff copied it onto the governor’s letterhead, and Justice signed it. While Justice’s resort would benefit from the tax deal, the letter said, “the real winner would no doubt be the residents of Greenbrier County,” who would see a surge in jobs.

About a week later, Justice withdrew his request. His note on state stationery was relayed to ethics officials by a Greenbrier lawyer.

The resort, however, forged ahead, with its executives seeking to enlist the help of local officials. Larry Klein, vice president and general manager of The Greenbrier Sporting Club, drafted a letter for county commissioners in support of Justice’s proposal — and then asked them to send it to the Ethics Commission under their own names. Much of the document’s language was taken verbatim from the governor’s aborted request.

The county officials declined to send the letter. They said they wanted to spend the tax dollars on other projects, like water and sewer construction, that would help average residents.

Commission President Lowell Rose, who owns a local construction company, said the decision was difficult.

“You have additional pressure you wouldn’t have if he wasn’t the biggest business owner in the area and also the governor,” Rose said.

The feds move in

Early in his tenure, Justice placed some of his smaller holdings into a blind trust. And a lawyer for the governor promised the Ethics Commission that Justice would soon add The Greenbrier, among other businesses, to the list, as soon as agreements could be worked out with various lenders.

But well into his third year in office, Justice has abandoned that pledge.

Abraham, the governor’s general counsel, now says a blind trust would be a “facade.”

Cullen added, “Placing The Greenbrier in a blind trust makes no sense because the Governor knows the family owns the business.”

Regardless, federal criminal investigators are looking into the administration’s interactions with The Greenbrier, especially regarding the golf tournament. Among the people whose communications were targeted in the March subpoena: Justice, his children and several resort executives.

The governor pledged to cooperate with the inquiry.

“I’ve always done the right thing in my personal life, my business life, my political life and every part of my life,” Justice said in a statement at the time. “The people of West Virginia know that I have always been an open book, so of course, I am fully cooperating with the investigation.”

At the same time, the governor faces mounting political opposition.

A leading state Democratic lawmaker has sued Justice for living in Greenbrier County, arguing that the West Virginia Constitution requires the governor to reside in Charleston. The lawsuit could be a vehicle to force Justice to turn over a variety of records, including his income tax returns, which, like Trump, the governor refused to make public during the 2016 election.

And Manchin, who continues to hint he will return from the U.S. Senate to seek another term as governor, is far from the only one-time ally who has turned on Justice. In April, Thrasher, Justice’s former Commerce secretary, announced that he would challenge the governor in next year’s Republican primary. Thrasher, owner of a large engineering firm with many state contracts, recently tweeted that, if elected, he would put his holdings into a blind trust.

“Public servants should make decisions 100% based on the citizens they are elected to serve,” he wrote, “and business interests should never be a factor.”

Justice is pressing forward, though, linking what could be good for The Greenbrier with what also would be good for West Virginia.

In late June, he signed a number of bills the Legislature had passed at his urging during a special session. The Governor’s Office said the package would “provide better opportunities for West Virginians.” Among the measures was House Bill 113, giving additional state tax breaks for investments in “opportunity zones,” like the one that includes The Greenbrier.

Jake Zuckerman and Kate Mishkin,

of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and

Lylla Younes and Alex Mierjeski, of ProPublica, contributed to this report.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at

kward@wvgazettemail.com,

304-348-1702 or follow

@kenwardjr on Twitter.