Wednesday, May 27, 2020

West Virginia governor's businesses often force creditors to sue to get what they are owed, ProPublica reports

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (Governor's Office photo)
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a billionaire whose family owns dozens of companies, many in the coal industry, often cites his business experience as a reason he should be re-elected in November. When asked about being sued for unpaid bills, Justice generally says his companies always pay what they owe. But that minimizes a long history of leaving bills unpaid in the first place, and how long plaintiffs often have to fight to get paid, even after ordered to do so by courts, Ken Ward Jr. and Alex Mierjeski report for ProPublica.

"ProPublica examined legal records dating back to the start of Justice’s tenure as CEO of his family’s companies, representing the most complete accounting yet of how the corporate empire overseen by the governor often forces those it does business with to sue to get what they are owed," Ward and Mierjeski write. They "found that, over the last three decades, Justice’s constellation of companies has been involved in more than 600 lawsuits spanning more than two dozen states — including many filed by workers, vendors, business partners and government agencies, all alleging they weren’t paid. Often, similar cases were filed in multiple jurisdictions, as lawyers for plaintiffs tried to chase down a Justice company’s assets to settle debts."

The list of plaintiffs includes retired coal miners who were denied promised health insurance, vendors, governments, government agencies, and even attorneys hired to represent the companies in court, Ward and Mierjeski report. The U.S. Department of Justice, for example, filed a civil lawsuit against 23 of Justice's companies in May 2019, seeking more than $4.7 million in unpaid fines and fees for mine health and safety violations.

Justice's family businesses were forced to pay off some of their longstanding coal debts to companies and counties in West Virginia and Kentucky last summer. They owed millions in coal production taxes and property taxes to poor Appalachian counties.

Justice blames coal-related lawsuits on the industry's recent downturn, but ProPublica's review found coal debt lawsuits dating back to the 1990s. Justice also blames "the Russian conglomerate Mechel, which purchased a large chunk of Justice’s coal holdings in 2009 and then, according to court filings, ran up big bills in disputes with miners, contractors and vendors. The Justice family reacquired those holdings in 2015," Ward and Mierjeski report. "But few of the major, high-dollar cases in ProPublica’s review were, in fact, related to Mechel. More importantly, legal records show that Justice companies agreed to accept many liabilities in the buyback."

Justice has tried to distance himself from his companies, saying that he handed them over to his adult children. However, Ward reported last October that Justice was still running them.

In related news, the investigative news nonprofit Ward co-founded in March now has a name and a website. Mountain State Spotlight "is an independent, civic news organization that tells stories of importance to West Virginians about the issues and challenges facing their communities," it says. When it launches later this year, it will be "one of the largest newsrooms in West Virginia, with a team of seasoned editors and aggressive reporters focused on major issues including public health threats, economic development challenges, environmental issues, and government accountability." It's affiliated with ProPublica, the American Journalism Project, and Report for America.

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