There is a scene in the comedy film “Naked Gun” where Inspector Frank Drebin is standing in front of an exploding building as its occupants flee in panic. A crowd gathers, but Drebin waves them away. “Nothing to see here. Please disperse.”
I was thinking about that as Gov. Jim Justice again tried to assure West Virginians that his companies’ financial problems were not our concern.
“We’ll get through it,” Justice said during a briefing this week. “We’re in good shape from the standpoint of our companies. Everybody needs to quit worrying about that.”
I suspect West Virginians are not all that worried about Justice’s money problems, because we are not the ones on the hook for his massive obligations.
Justice companies have outstanding loans of $368 million to Carter Bank and nearly $700 million to Credit Suisse, which acquired the loans from the defunct Greensill Capital. Justice, his wife Cathy and son Jay have personally guaranteed the loans.
However, when you pride yourself on your business acumen, as Justice does, stories in major financial publications like The Wall Street Journal about your debt obligations will invariably garner public attention and scrutiny.
Justice was first elected, in part, because he portrayed himself as a successful entrepreneur. “I done done it,” he famously repeated on the campaign trail. But more often, the stories about the family operations have been about unpaid bills and lawsuits, which Justice chalks up to the nature of business.
“Unfortunately, from time to time, you get into disputes and everything and have disagreements with somebody, and that’s why you either sue somebody or somebody sues you, or whatever it may be,” Justice said Thursday.
Yes, but Justice sues and gets sued a lot.
As ProPublica reported last year, Justice companies have been involved in more than 600 lawsuits. That prompted Justice’s Democrat opponent in the 2020 governor’s race, Charleston attorney and Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango, to say during their debate, “He has more courtroom experienced than I do.”
It was a good line, but Justice’s financial entanglements were baked in from the 2016 election. They did not make a dent when he ran for reelection last year and won easily.
The most public image of the Justice family businesses is the famed Greenbrier resort, in White Sulphur Springs. The historic hotel was just days from shuttering when Justice stepped in and bought it out of bankruptcy in 2009.
The move saved hundreds of jobs and preserved one of the state’s crown jewels. It was the kind of gesture that generated plenty of goodwill and provided a picturesque setting for Justice to host attention-getting events, like the PGA Tour.
Justice insists the resort and his Bluestone Resources coal operations are just fine. “From the standpoint of the health of The Greenbrier, from the standpoint of the health of Bluestone, both are extremely, extremely healthy,” Justice said. “And they are doing well.”
Still, when Justice does his best Frank Drebin act, it is reasonable to wonder whether he is accurately representing the state of his family’s finances or engaging in obfuscation.