CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A subpoena requesting information about Gov. Jim Justice’s private properties did not come from federal prosecutors in West Virginia.
Instead, the subpoena is addressed from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section, a designation that may reflect the investigation is high-profile and sensitive.
The Public Integrity Section’s own description of its role says it “oversees the federal effort to combat corruption through the prosecution of elected and appointed public officials at all levels of government.”
Mike Stuart, the U.S. Attorney for Southern West Virginia, has talked proudly of his office’s efforts to challenge public corruption. ““Public corruption is a cancer on our system of government,” Stuart has said.
Stuart’s office spearheaded fraud prosecutions of state Supreme Court Justices Allen Loughry and Menis Ketchum last year.
But the investigation involving the governor appears to have gone beyond Stuart and his staff.
“One of the reasons it could be taken to Public Integrity Section would be appearance of conflict,” said former assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Callaghan, who is now in private practice in Charleston.
“In my experience the Public Integrity Section would oversee any public official investigation. They may or may not take over the case. It just depends on circumstance.”
As West Virginia’s governor, Jim Justice is already a prominent political figure. Add to that his family’s sprawling, complicated and, by all appearances, financially-strained business operation.
A subpoena demanding records from the state Department of Commerce to The Greenbrier Resort, The Greenbrier Classic golf event and Old White Charities — all run by the governor’s family — was revealed earlier this month.
The subpoena is not evidence of wrongdoing, but does indicate an investigation is underway.
Last week, when reporters asked Justice what he believes the investigation is about, the governor said he doesn’t know.
“I don’t have one earthly clue,” Justice said. “I honestly don’t. And I want to re-emphasize that I want to be respectful of these people and the job they’re doing.
“Let’s just be fair here. They’re here to protect us. And that’s just the job they do. I guess I make a mistake now and then, and then I try to correct it.”
He went on to describe the economic difficulties of coal, where his family has many of its holdings, along with the catastrophic flood of 2016 that hurt The Greenbrier’s properties and forced the annual PGA Tour golf tournament to be canceled.
“It’s tough. It’s really tough,” Justice said. “And so, I guess, in an organization as big as our organization you surely are going to be able to find something that doesn’t look right or whatever. But I promise you to God above, you’ll never find anything that Jim Justice has purposefully done to benefit Jim Justice.”
The Public Integrity Section was created in 1976 following the Watergate scandal.
Following the dismissal of corruption charges against Alaska Sen. Ted Stephens in 2009, the unit’s reputation was perceived as tarnished.
That was further complicated in 2010 with a string of congressional investigations that ended without resolution. One of those was an investigation of Congressman Alan Mollohan, a West Virginia Democrat, over whether he had benefited from federal earmarks for his district.
By 2014, as the section rallied, a headline in The New York Times declared, “At Justice Department, a Watchdog on Graft Finds Its Teeth Again.”
The Public Integrity Section provides an annual report to Congress. The most recent one from 2017 depicts an active prosecutorial unit that remains involved with corruption investigations.
The report notes that cases handled by the Public Integrity Section generally fall into one of the following categories: recusals by United States Attorneys’ Offices, sensitive cases, multidistrict cases, referrals from federal agencies and shared cases.
“I can’t tell you for sure they’ve taken over this case,” Callaghan observed. “By appearances they have.”
In some instances, local prosecutors might recuse themselves.
“Public corruption cases tend to raise unique problems of public perception that are generally absent in more routine criminal cases,” the Public Integrity section wrote in its most recent report to Congress.
“An investigation of alleged corruption by a government official, whether at the federal, state, or local level, or someone associated with such an official, always has the potential of becoming a high-profile case simply because its focus is on the conduct of a public official. In addition, these cases are often politically sensitive because their ultimate targets tend to be politicians or government officials appointed by politicians.”
Similarly, a case may be so sensitive that it is best handled away from where it would have the most political impact.
“Sensitive cases may also include those that are so politically controversial on a local level that they are most appropriately handled in Washington,” the Public Integrity Section wrote.