Mark Sadd: Nothing wrong with Gov. Justice taking $125K subsidy (Opinion)

To my taste, it was only mildly newsworthy that Gov. Jim Justice’s family farms got $125,000 in federal agricultural subsidies in recent months. The story, broken by Anthony Izaguirre of The Associated Press last week, got legs and ran in many outlets around the country.

The Trump administration, with the Congress’ tacit approval, has authorized heaping up to $14.5 billion on the nation’s farmers through the Market Facilitation Program, under the Commodity Credit Corporation Charter Act, administered by the Farm Service Agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Mental note on headline opportunity: “USDA’s FSA OKs CCCCA’s MFP’s $14.5B”.)

The federal program provides “assistance for non-specialty crops ... based on a single-county payment rate multiplied by a farm’s total planting of MFP-eligible crops in aggregate in 2019.” According to its own reports, so far the Farm Service Agency has doled out nearly $6.6 billion to farms that applied for the money.

The USDA says it, so far, has paid subsidies to West Virginia farmers totaling $1.5 million. Justice Farms apparently planted lots of soybeans in 2019 and, because of the Sino-American tariff trade war, was deemed to have financially suffered because of it.

Justice Farms’ share of the total U.S. give-away was relatively peanuts but represents a whopping fraction — more than 8.5 percent — of West Virginia’s total subsidy, so far, in 2019. I speculate that Justice Farms would have received more but for the cap on pay-outs.

One side takeaway is the tiny value of West Virginia’s commodity crop production. Even farmers in little Delaware whipped up on their West Virginia peers. They have received $6.5 million in subsidies.

In comparison, Ohio farmers have received payments so far totaling $224 million. Kentucky farmers have gotten $106 million while Iowa and Illinois farmers have gotten the most, $744 million and $685 million.

Applying for a subsidy seems pretty simple. A farmer must complete, self-certify and sign the two-page USDA Form CCC-913. The MFP appears to operate mostly on the honor system. The application includes sworn statements of eligible acres, covered acres and total planted acres for 2019, information that would have been known as of the spring planting season.

It is that easy for a farmer to claim free, no-strings-attached dollars transferred to the federal treasury by U.S. taxpayers under pain of fine or imprisonment or both. You say, “Here is my form and please send me $125,000.” And they actually send it to you.

The Farm Service Agency reserves the right to “spot-check” the planted acres and to obtain “copies of records verifying the information entered” on the form. I searched for a rule or regulation that requires an eligible applicant to have paid all of its federal taxes and couldn’t find one.

Some are castigating Justice Farms for applying for the money, and then taking it. They say our governor should have passed on a federal farm subsidy because he is a billionaire, a claim that I am unclear that he has ever made for himself. Whether he is or isn’t a billionaire, he seems to have lots of wealth and access to cash, at least up to a point.

The Charleston Gazette-Mail editorial page was not alone in its disapproval of Justice taking the federal money, because it believes it looks bad for a presumed billionaire to take free government money. Others concurred. Social media got its licks in, too.

I have a much different take.

Whatever the extent of his wealth or his debts, was Justice, after he took office, supposed to have left his common sense at the door of the Governor’s Mansion, at least when he makes his occasional trips there to pick up his mail?

If Justice, to appear seemly while in public office, is obliged to forego federal grants given to everyone else in a class of persons, then would the same standard require that he not claim federal and state income tax deductions that would be available to virtually everyone else? If he gives money to charity, should he not report the gift on his tax returns to reduce tax liability because it just doesn’t look good?

Is it now a requirement of public office to be foolish? Such self-denial is not required of others who are presumed not to be billionaires.

Let me tell you that a lawyer representing a client in a similar circumstance would be vulnerable to a reasonable malpractice claim if she failed to pursue on its behalf a federal benefit that she knew was available.

All of this is why, to me, it might have been more newsworthy had the Justice family farms, the biggest in our state, not applied for the subsidies or received them. It would have been evidence that someone is not minding business or that Justice’s farms aren’t worth a hill of beans.

Mark Sadd is a Charleston lawyer

and former Daily Mail business editor. Reach him at msadd@lewisglasser.com

or follow @mark_sadd on Twitter.

Funerals for Friday, November 15, 2019

Flint Jr., William - 1 p.m., Graceland Memorial Par, South Charleston.

Geiger Jr., Berley - Noon, Metropolitan Baptist Church, Charleston.

Hines, Kathy - 1 p.m., Weirwood Community Church, Weirwood.

Jeffers, Neal - 2 p.m., Good Shepherd Mortuary, South Charleston.

Jeffrey, Harold - 11 a.m., Evans Funeral Home, Chapmanville.

Kearns, Pamela - 1 p.m., Foglesong-Casto Funeral Home, Mason.

Loftis, Anthony - Noon, Richmond Cemetery, Spurlockville.

McFarland, William - 1 p.m., Preston Funeral Home, Charleston.

Neal, Betty - 1 p.m., Smathers Funeral Chapel, Rainelle.

Pennington, Jack - 1 p.m., Rock Branch Independent Church.

Richards, Jimmy - 11 a.m., Stump Funeral Home & Cremation Inc., Grantsville.

Terry Sr., Watson - 1 p.m., Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church of Carbondale.

Welch, Brenda - 11 a.m., Fidler & Frame Funeral Home, Belle.

Wise, Barry - 6 p.m., Roush Funeral Home, Ravenswood.