Yes, calls to investigate Gov. Jim Justice’s ties to FirstEnergy are political. That doesn’t mean they’re without merit, though.
Ben Salango, a Kanawha County commissioner and Charleston attorney, and Justice’s Democratic opponent in the November election, called for the investigation. It was on the heels of the arrest of Ohio Speaker of the House Larry Householder, who is accused of taking $60 million in bribes from FirstEnergy in exchange for facilitating passage of legislation that gave the company a $1.3 billion bailout.
Justice has some conflicting ties with FirstEnergy. As part of a special session last year, the governor pushed through a $12.5 million tax break for the company’s power plant in Pleasants County, which was going bankrupt. Also, the company is suing one of Justice’s coal companies for $3.1 million over an alleged breach of contract — a fact that was revealed after the special session.
FirstEnergy also has contributed to Justice’s reelection campaign.
When asked about the call for an investigation, Justice called it a political ploy, equating Salango to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and calling him a “desperate candidate.” He added that his daily COVID-19 briefings are no place for political skirmishes.
Salango’s motivations are, no doubt, political. But a reasonable idea is a reasonable idea. Justice’s entanglements with his business interests and his refusal to separate himself from them as governor are a continual problem. If he’s doing favors for a business because he wants to get rid of a lawsuit, or because that business contributes to his campaign, that’s something voters should know.
Justice said he was only trying to help keep afloat a business that employs 160 people. Even if that’s the case, it could be argued that the governor’s motivations were, like Salango’s, purely political. The coal-fired Pleasants Power Station was already on its last legs, and some, including Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, called the tax break a corporate giveaway that merely prolongs the plant’s demise by another year or two. But it looks good, and could sway donors and voters.
As for Justice’s claim that his news briefings are for imparting vital information about COVID-19 and not the proper venue for politics, well, he’s right and he’s wrong. In this instance, he was asked a question with political implications, so the answer is going to involve politics. But the governor, without such prompting, has engaged in plenty of side-rants against political opponents and the opposite party during these briefings in the past, when he should have stuck to the issue at hand.
Given the severity of the accusations involving FirstEnergy in Ohio, it’s worth looking at the implications in West Virginia. Justice’s word that he hasn’t done anything wrong, given his own relationship with the company, isn’t enough.