Federal officials announced this week the government had filed a civil action to force 23 coal companies owned by Governor Jim Justice and his family to pay over $4.7 million in unpaid penalties for mine safety violations.
“As alleged in the complaint, the defendants racked up over 2,000 safety violations over a five-year period (May 3, 2014-May 3, 2019) and have, to date, refused to comply with their legal obligations to pay the resulting financial penalties,” said U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen. “This is unacceptable, and, as indicated by this suit, we will hold them accountable.”
Ordinarily this would be shocking news. Sadly, however, the stories about Justice and his companies slow-paying or simply not paying bills, fines and taxes have become commonplace. Forbes Magazine reported last month in an article titled “Deadbeat Billionaire,” that Justice companies are frequently fending off bill collectors.
“Since 2016 courts have order Justice and his companies to pay more than $10 million to more than a dozen suppliers, workers and government entities. Over the same time, his companies also piled up $13 million in tax liens. He claims to have paid off many of these.
“Still looming: another $60 million in potential damages in a civil case awaiting final judgment, plus up to $3 million in fines in Kentucky,” Forbes reported.
Justice’s attorney, Mike Carey, told MetroNews that this week’s filing by the federal government caught them by surprise since they were in negotiations.
He argues that half of the safety violations occurred under the previous owner—the Russian company Mechel. “One of the reasons the Justices believe this case should have been settled is well over 50 percent of the assessments pending were incurred when the Russians owned the company,” Carey told our Brad McElhinny.
It’s unclear exactly why the Justice Department and MSHA decided to force the issue now. Perhaps they had grown weary, like many of Justice family business’s creditors, with being dragged along.
U.S. District Court Judge Irene Berger is among those who has grown increasingly impatient with Justice’s companies. She has twice chastised them for appearing to ignore court orders to pay bills and contempt of court fines.
The latest non-payment is particularly egregious. Mining is a dangerous occupation and safety goes hand-in-hand with production. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is responsible for ensuring that mine operators follow the rules.
So, let’s put this in perspective: The Governor of a coal producing state, which has had its share of coal-related tragedies, has failed to pay $4.7 million in penalties for mine safety violations.
That’s an irresponsible way of doing business and humiliating for the State of West Virginia.