Governor Jim Justice has a communications problem.
It is vital for the Governor and his top staff to be on the same page when it comes to policy and public relations. Without that consistency, the message becomes garbled and it makes it appear as though the state’s leadership is disorganized.
Take the sports betting issue, for example.
The Legislature approved a bill allowing sports betting if the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law that prevents states from getting into that business. Governor Justice let the bill become law without his signature because of his conflict. Justice owns the Greenbrier Resort, where one of the state’s five casinos is located.
The Legislature shut out professional sports leagues from the debate and decided against paying an “integrity fee” to leagues, which could run into millions of dollars. The leagues continued their lobbying efforts and apparently convinced Justice that a fee was appropriate.
Bray Cary, who has emerged as a top adviser to the Governor, has taken the lead on the sports betting issue. Cary was serving strictly as an unpaid volunteer until last week, when he was added to the state payroll at the nominal rate of $8.75 an hour.
Cary led a meeting last week of key stakeholders and then engineered a press release in the Governor’s name saying a tentative deal had been reached where the casinos would pay an integrity fee to the sports leagues.
That release stunned the casino operators, who maintained that no deal had been reached. “We were surprised,” said Eric Schippers, vice president of Penn National, which owns the Charles Town Race Track and Casino. “It looks like the Governor’s office jumped the gun.”
Schippers said the elements of a deal are in place, but there is no agreement in place.
Media followed up with the Governor’s press office for clarification, but none was available. Justice’s Director of Communications, Butch Antolini, could provide only vague comments about how the release speaks for itself and that there is nothing more to add.
So, was there a deal or not?
Antolini, who I have known and worked with for years, appears severely limited in what information he can provide the press, despite the fact that he’s supposed to be in charge of the governor’s communications.
The botched announcement by the Justice administration makes it seem like the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Even if there was a tentative deal, the Governor’s office undermined its own announcement by refusing to provide additional clarification.
Governor Justice hates what he considers “negative press” and is annoyed when something appears in the news that he didn’t know about. However, unless Justice can get his own house in order, he can expect to be increasingly frustrated by what he sees and hears in the news.