Jim Justice, the billionaire governor of West Virginia, excused himself from a briefing on the state’s Covid-19 response yesterday to take a call from President Donald Trump. Upon returning from the call, Justice shared the nature of their conversation. “I wanted him to always know just how welcome he is in West Virginia,” Justice said. “And any president, you know. And we should absolutely welcome all — maybe not Barack Obama — but nevertheless, we’ll welcome any president,” he said, laughing.
Justice, who made his fortune in coal mining and agriculture, has in the past made no secret of his animosity toward the former president — ostensibly because of Obama’s clean energy initiatives that eroded power utilities’ demand for West Virginia’s coal. Nevertheless, his comments were tone deaf in light of ongoing protests worldwide condemning the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police two weeks ago. In a statement later in the day, Justice’s office walked back the words, insisting they were made “in jest.”
“I want to love everybody, and by that I mean everybody, including President Obama,” the statement said. But that love is conditional. “Everyone knows that President Obama made it a specific strategy to destroy our coal industry and power plants which, for more than a century, had been the lifeblood of West Virginia’s economy,” adding that the policies had brought the state “to our knees.”
“What happened to West Virginia during his time in the Oval Office will take us decades and decades to recover from, if ever.”
It’s been a tough year for Justice. The pandemic, he reportedly said, is like being “lost in a movie that we can’t relate to in any way.” On top of that, the first-term governor is fighting for his political life, facing a primary challenge next week from former commerce secretary Woody Thrasher.
But among his biggest obstacles is himself. Earlier this year Justice — who coaches girls high school basketball — drew criticism for calling an opposing, mostly black, team “a bunch of thugs.”
He sort of apologized for that one, reportedly saying “anyone that would accuse me of making a racial slur is totally absurd.” Justice later told ABC affiliate WCHS, “First of all, I would tell them that I’m really sorry if I’ve done anything that has offended them. But secondly, I would just say this, Barack Obama used that term.”
Obama, in a statement this week titled “How to Make This Moment The Turning Point for Real Change,” wrote: “So let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it. If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves.”
And then there’s his legal issues. In late April a judge in the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Kentucky issued a final judgment against Justice and his one of his coal mining companies, Kentucky Fuel, ordering him to pay more than $50 million to resolve a fractious civil case that has involved seven years of litigation. The plaintiffs, New London Tobacco Market and Five Mile Energy, had entered into a contract giving Kentucky Fuel the right to mine coal reserves they owned. But not only did Justice not mine the coal, according to court documents he sold the rights to another company for more than $3.8 million. Judge Gregory Tatenhove strongly criticized Justice and his legal team for “extensive litigation misconduct,” including “willful noncompliance with numerous of the court’s discovery orders” as well as “contumacious, combative conduct.” The court-ordered judgment includes $17 million in contractually obligated coal royalties, $17 million in punitive damages, and roughly $17 more in legal fees and years of compounded interest (at 8% per annum). Justice is appealling.
Another case involves a contract dispute between Justice’s Dynamic Energy coal company and CM Energy, which paid him nearly $100 million for reserves of metallurgical coal at a mine called Coal Mountain. The deal stipulated that if CM couldn’t sell the produced coal for at least $100 per ton, that Dynamic would pay CM back half the difference, up to $25 million. Naturally, coal prices have not cooperated and CM wants some money back, while Justice’s attorneys argue its not Dynamic’s fault that higher-value metallurgical coal (for steelmaking) is getting mixed up with lower grade steam coal for power generation. That case appears to be heading to arbitration.
And then there’s Justice’s other big distraction — the Greenbrier Hotel, a money pit that Justice bought out of bankruptcy a decade ago and which still needs repairs and upgrades following catastrophic flooding in 2016. Justice has refused to pay $609,000 allegedly owed to a claims adjusting company that secured $39 million for Greenbrier following the floods. He was looking for $100 million or more. The company, Goodman-Gable-Gould Adjusters International has sued.
All told, according to a recent ProPublica investigation, Justice has been on the losing end of more than $125 million in court judgments and settlements.
It’s a lot even for a peripatetic tycoon like Justice to handle. Depending on how he does in the June 9 gubernatorial primary, he may soon have enough time in his schedule to get it all sorted out.