CHARLESTON, W.Va. — One way or another, the next governor of West Virginia will be a businessman.
The Republican candidate, Bill Cole, is the owner of Cole Automotive Group, based in Bluefield.
The Democratic candidate, Jim Justice, has broader and higher-profile business interests as the owner of the Greenbrier Resort and operator of various businesses that go on for 97 lines on his financial disclosure form. Most are related to coal and land holdings used for timber and agriculture.
With a net worth estimated at $1.6 billion, Justice is West Virginia’s richest man.
Both candidates tout their business experience as reasons to trust them with West Virginia’s economy.
But both also would have to determine what to do with their businesses if they’re elected.
Cole says it wouldn’t be hard for him to put his other businesses aside and focus on being governor. He says to a large degree he already has passed on supervision of his auto dealerships to his sons because of his commitment to being Senate president and because of the demands of his current campaign.
“I’m going to do what I’ve done the past two years,” Cole said in an interview.
“For the last two years, I haven’t spent 1 percent of my time with the business.”
Justice’s campaign responded to a question about how the candidate would deal with his business interests by providing a statement saying Justice will work through any entanglements:
“Jim will work with experts and attorneys to do everything ethically and technically correct to avoid any conflict,” stated Grant Herring, Justice’s spokesman.
In an editorial board meeting last Thursday with editors and reporters at the Herald-Dispatch newspaper in Huntington, Justice addressed the issue himself.
When asked about whether he would keep all of his personal and professional obligations if he were elected governor, Justice said he’d already named his daughter, Jill Justice, as president of The Greenbrier, and he said his son, Jay Justice, would manage the Justice mining companies, according to the Herald-Dispatch.
Justice told the editors he’d planned on continuing to coach the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams at Greenbrier East High School if he were elected.
There have been several high-profile interactions between Justice properties and the state over the past few years. The State of West Virginia is a major sponsor of The Greenbrier Classic golf tournament. And on the final day of the 2014 legislative session, lawmakers approved a 10-year tax credit for three projects at The Greenbrier.
Justice’s financial disclosure form, which has to be submitted to the state Ethics Commission, lists 22 areas of interaction between state government and Justice entities.
Those include the state Development Office and its golf tournament sponsorship with Old White Charities, plus state agencies and their conferences at The Greenbrier and Glade Springs Resort, also owned by Justice.
Cole contends Justice has so many high-profile businesses that interact with state government that placing his businesses in a blind trust would be a necessity. Cole says even that step might not be enough.
“I think his interactions with state government are huge,” Cole said. “A blind trust would be imperative.”
Cole continued, “I see in every aspect of his business, there’s troubling connections. A blind trust at a very minimum is going to be critical here.”
“So let’s see, the governor would be boss of the Lottery Commission, who then would be boss, presumably, of the casino,” Cole said. “I find that a terrible, terrible conflict of interest.”
Two former governors, Jay Rockefeller and Gaston Caperton, placed their assets in blind trusts either before or right after becoming the state’s chief executive.
Caperton, who was elected in 1988, had been owner of McDonough-Caperton Insurance Group, which became one of the largest privately-owned insurance companies in the nation. When he became governor, he placed his assets in a blind trust with United Bank, relinquishing control.
“In the insurance business, I had a tremendous amount of different businesses I served,” Caperton said last week. “I felt like I needed to be independent of my business and so I got out of my business. You don’t need to do that — in my case, I wanted to focus on being governor. I didn’t want anyone to criticize me on conflict of interest.”
Caperton said Cole and Justice would have to decide for themselves whether a blind trust would be crucial to balance the role of governor with the demands of business.
“I don’t think there’s a rule. I think everyone has to deal with it their own way based on their own goals and the kind of business they’re in. I think you have to look at it separately.”