CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice, whose time in office has been dogged by the debts of his family businesses, has promised again that they’ll be paid off soon.
“I think there’s a day coming in just a matter of a couple of days to where we’ll be able to report to you that every single tax owed from any of my affiliates are paid and paid in full,” Justice said at a midday Friday news conference about state finances.
“I’ve told you that was coming. And I’ve told you I wouldn’t walk away from any obligation whatsoever.”
Beyond that, the governor provided few specifics.
Justice — whose family has interests in coal, timber, agriculture and hospitality — has long been known for his personal wealth. Just this past week, Justice and his estimated $1.72 billion ranked No. 11 on Business Insider’s list of “The 13 richest U.S. politicians in office.”
But many of Justice’s businesses have also struggled to remain above water.
The taxes and fines owed by coal companies owned by the Justice family were the subject of a National Public Radio investigation published Oct. 7, 2016, about a month before Justice, a Democrat, was elected governor of West Virginia.
The report concluded that mines owned by the Justice family owed about $15 million in taxes and fines in six states, including $4.71 million in West Virginia.
Last July 24, following news reports of new liens against Justice coal companies amounting to almost another $1 million, Justice said the debts would be paid although he gave very few details about the nature of the debts or why they continued to mount.
“I’m not involved on day-to-day operations on our companies nearly like I was before. But I can tell you this. For us to be focused in any way on an obligation that Jim Justice has to the government, I’d love for you to say ‘What has he never paid?’” Justice said on MetroNews’ “Talkline” then.
“I’ve said it a thousand times over. Every obligation will absolutely be fulfilled.”
Since then, news stories in West Virginia and elsewhere have continued about the debts.
The Herald-Leader newspaper in Lexington, Ky., reported in late February that Justice businesses still owe $2.9 million in delinquent property taxes in five Eastern Kentucky counties.
The tax liens on record at the Kanawha County courthouse also continued to grow, The Charleston Gazette-Mail reported about the time thousands of teachers were rallying at the state Capitol for better wages and stable healthcare costs.
Meanwhile, a federal judge ordered The Greenbrier resort, which is owned by Justice’s family, to pay out nearly $1.5 million as outcomes of two lawsuits over debts that resulted when the annual Greenbrier Classic golf tournament was flooded out in 2016, the Gazette-Mail reported.
Justice today was talking about the state’s economic struggles when he started broadly discussing his view that bankruptcy should be avoided. The context was the deep fiscal gap the state faced when Justice first became governor.
“Four years ago. Three years ago, way before I became a politician, I knew what bad times were. Coal business was terrible. Two years ago we had a thousand year flood and we searched for bodies out on the golf courses of The Greenbrier,” Justice said at today’s news conference, which was meant to highlight improving state revenue.
“I know what tough is,” Justice continued. “I don’t believe in bankruptcy. I’m not a believer in that because others really, really get hurt. When I walked in here on day one and flipped the books open, this state was really bankrupt. That’s all there is to it.
Justice went on: “If we’d have thrown up the white flag — as maybe I could have done as well — a lot, a lot, a lot of people would have gotten hurt. Well, I know what it takes to dig in and make things better — and that’s what I’ve done. And that’s what we’ve done as a state.”
That statement prompted a question about Justice’s family debts as well as Justice’s reply that a financial response is imminent.
“The easiest thing in the world that a lot of people did, if you’ll go back and look — coal companies — just threw up the white flag, stiffed everybody coming and going, took bankruptcy,” Justice said today. “I wouldn’t do it.
“And so, at the end of the day, I’ve told it and told it and told it. You won’t have to worry about my obligations. My obligations will always be fulfilled.”