Justice still involved in running family’s billion-dollar businesses, though he promised he wouldn’t

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice is still involved in running his family’s businesses, though he promised during his campaign that he wouldn’t do that. “Back then, the billionaire promised to put his business empire aside and focus on public service. In an arrangement that echoed that of President Donald Trump, Justice said his adult children, Jay and Jill, would run his family’s coal mines, resorts and farms,” the Charleston Gazette-Mail’s Ken Ward Jr. reports for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network.

But Justice has remained deeply involved in his businesses, and has often used official public appearances and “the trappings of his office” to promote them. “Over the past year, he has hosted a news conference at the governor’s office to tout a settlement between his coal companies and his administration’s tax collectors,” Ward reports. “He has used an interview at the Governor’s Mansion to press his luxury resort’s $75 million lawsuit against its insurance companies. And he’s turned an appearance at a statewide business gathering — held at that same resort — into breaking news about his family’s plans to reopen a coal mine.”

As the Republican and former Democrat seeks a second term in 2020, critics in both parties complain that Justice is often an absentee governor who isn’t doing much to lead the state through issues such as the opioid epidemic and the decline of coal industry jobs, Ward reports.

Justice wouldn’t comment for Ward’s story, but issued a statement through a company spokesperson saying that his interactions with the business are limited, but “because the businesses employ thousands of West Virginians, I continue to have an interest in their success and do check in on them from time to time… . There are also times where I have specific historical knowledge of a particular aspect of one of the businesses, and Jay and Jill will ask me about it.”

“Unlike his recent predecessors, Justice has refused to place most of his holdings into a blind trust, which would put them under the control of an independent manager and shield him from at least the appearance of a conflict. Instead, the governor has retained ownership in 130 corporate entities, and his assets are valued by Forbes magazine at $1.5 billion,” Ward reports. “Many of Justice’s businesses, from coal mines to farms to a casino, are regulated by the state, and some of them do business with the administration.”

Justice has denied that his business dealings present conflicts of interest because he has turned control over to his children, but his actions undercut that argument, Ward writes.

The Rural Blog is published by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.