It’s been a common thread in recent reports and commentary that West Virginia was never prepared for someone like Gov. Jim Justice.
State framers and those who crafted the West Virginia Ethics Act and formed the Ethics Commission could never have envisioned a billionaire with more than 130 companies holding the state’s highest office, not releasing tax returns and not placing those multiple potential conflicts of interest in a blind trust or writing a check for $1 million from the governor’s inaugural committee to a resort that same governor owns.
Gov. Justice has been in office for nearly three years and has been busily converting West Virginia into his fiefdom, where the only people he has to answer to are those he appoints. He may well win another term.
So now is a good time to get used to the idea of someone like that running the state.
It’s not like West Virginia’s gubernatorial record was spotless before. Many previous governors, be they Democrat or Republican (Justice has been both in one term), surely profited from business and governmental agendas aligning. West Virginians hardened by this state’s political history would be forgiven for being alarmed if there weren’t some level of rather obvious quid-pro-quo going on.
Still, Gov. Justice has ushered in a new age of brashness and, frankly, confusion. With the multitude of companies the Justice family controls, most of those in the energy sector, getting any sort of handle on the level of conflict is a daunting task. In fact, it might be more difficult to pinpoint where state interests and Justice’s business interests don’t intersect. That doesn’t mean it should just be left alone.
Of course, the glaring exception to all of this is The Greenbrier, the state’s No. 1 luxury resort. Just this week, the resort hosted the annual West Virginia Chamber of Commerce business summit, as it has for many years. Do West Virginians know how many politicians, business owners and corporate lobbyists rub elbows at that thing? Do West Virginians care that this is surely making money for the Justice family, and that it might be viewed as a way to curry political favor? They should.
There’s also the ethical quandary of The Greenbrier and state spending. Gov. Justice rightly asked out of any state sponsorship of the PGA tournament at the resort, but The Greenbrier is featured heavily in state tourism advertisements and promotions, funded by tax dollars.
There are some ways to at least try to fix these things. As veteran Gazette-Mail statehouse reporter Phil Kabler mentioned in a recent column, giving the Ethics Commission the ability to launch its own investigations, along with the proper funding to retain the level of staffing and resources to conduct them, would be a good start.
That’s not something Gov. Justice is likely to support, but it needs to happen, and soon. Because, in the end, this isn’t about Jim Justice, but the floodgates he’s opened. Political norms across levels of state government are being warped, and they won’t course correct without some oversight.
West Virginia needs to hold its state officials and its Legislature accountable, so that government can function properly long after Justice, and others who might follow his lead, are gone.