CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Ethics Commission unanimously decided to let employees of the state Development Office participate in the upcoming Business Summit at The Greenbrier, which is owned by Gov. Jim Justice and his family.
But the employees are to avoid spending state dollars to lodge, dine or drink at The Greenbrier. The arrangement also applies to employees of the state Tourism Office.
This has never been an issue in the past for the annual meeting, which is coming up this Aug. 30 through Sept. 1.
Then again, West Virginia has never had a governor who owned the resort. Governor Justice has the resort listed in his annual ethics filing, but has not yet worked out a blind trust agreement.
Here’s the official way that’s described in what the Ethics Commission considered:
“The Greenbrier constitutes a business with which the Governor of West Virginia is associated for purposes of W.Va. Code 6B-2-5(d) due to the Governor owning more than 5 percent of The Greenbrier’s total outstanding stock.”
That put lawyers for the Development Office and members of the Ethics Commission in the unusual position of working out the situation.
“Mr. Justice has a tremendous amount of different assets that I think were relayed on his financial, and his is more vast than I’ve ever seen,” said Bob Wolfe, the chairman of the Ethics Commission, in an interview after the meeting.
“His interest in different venues puts him in an awkward position as being the governor and owning these businesses. Now hopefully they can get it resolved.”
Some of Justice’s other holdings, such as Glade Springs, are in a blind trust. But The Greenbrier is not yet subject to such an arrangement.
“That goes to lead us to this meeting, and the predicament of trying to do that,” Wolfe said after the meeting.
Wolfe added, “It’s a double-edged sword, and we did the best we could to try not to restrict business but by the same token restrict some of the public monies that goes there.”
The board’s official decision notes that the Development Office likely would lose out on an opportunity if it were unable to be represented at the Business Summit. But the board also notes that’s difficult to quantify.
“If the WVDO is prohibited from participating in this year’s Summit, it is not a certainty that the state will lose out on significant investment opportunities,” according to an analysis in the contract exemption the board wound up granting.
The commission wound up agreeing that no other event matches the Business Summit’s potential to make development contacts.
“The Commission finds it persuasive that the Summit offers a benefit that few other functions can match as the WVDO can advertise and market the state’s resources to businesses and representatives statewide in a single location.
“It is also significant that the decision regarding where the Summit is to be held is not within the WVDO’s control. The WVDO cannot simply select another venue to hold the Summit so that it may participate.”
Ethics board member Betty Ireland, former Secretary of State offered the amendment removing expenses such as lodging, food and drinks from being bought on site with taxpayer dollars by Development Office employees. Those purchases may be made at other locations near the summit, just not at The Greenbrier.
Her amendment also said no more than $5,000 could be paid for registration to the summit. The Development Office expects $5,000 would cover registration eight representatives and that another $5,000 could be spent on food and drinks.
“The commission does not want to hinder the Development Office’s ability to attract business and to do business within the state, and certainly the Business Summit is the place to do that,” Ireland said after today’s meeting.
“The opinion as written let the registration fee be paid by the state but also was going to include money for lodging and for food.”
She added, “We felt this would not hinder the Development Office’s ability to attend the summit, which they do every year, or conduct business there to the extent that they want to wine and dine a company or an individual. They can conduct that offsite, and in fact the state would pay for that. Their hands aren’t tied regarding their ability to meet with these folks or to take them off premise.”
Both the resort and the annual Business Summit, which is sponsored by the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, are high profile. This year’s top guest for the summit is Vice President Mike Pence.
The lawyer for the Development Office, Joshua Jarrell, said going through the process to gain approval for state representatives to be there was important. The decision occurred at an emergency meeting.
“It’s important to the Development Office’s role and mission,” Jarrell said. “It is essential that we’re able to be in close proximity to West Virginia’s business leaders and private industry. This is an event in which most of West Virginia businesses are in attendance, so it gives us an opportunity to be close to them, understand what their issues are and identify opportunities to grow their investments in West Virginia.”