Battle over W.Va. governor’s residence goes to Round 1 in court

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The next go-round over where the governor puts his head down is Monday in front of a judge.

Isaac Sponaugle

Delegate Isaac Sponaugle filed a lawsuit in June over whether Gov. Jim Justice is living up to the state Constitution’s requirement that the chief executive reside at the seat of government.

Justice has acknowledged continuing to live in Lewisburg, a couple hours from the Capitol, and contends he gets work done wherever he is without the costly perk of residing in the Governor’s Mansion. But he hasn’t made a constitutional argument.

Motions have flown back and forth between Sponaugle and the governor’s defense team.

Now, at 10:30 a.m. Monday, Kanawha Circuit Judge Charles King will hear the first of those motions.

The lawyers for the governor want the case to be dismissed. They also say they shouldn’t have to provide information about the governor’s habits because, they believe, the likelihood of dismissal is so high.

Sponaugle, a Democrat from Pendleton County who filed the lawsuit as a citizen of West Virginia, disagrees on both of those.

Seated in the Governor’s Mansion, Gov. Jim Justice shows off a hat that President Donald Trump signed for his grandson, J.C., plus the handwritten speech the governor gave at a Trump rally.

Justice, when asked about the case at the end of an interview in — of all places — the Governor’s Mansion, said he wasn’t aware of the Monday hearing.

But the governor continued to maintain his position that he doesn’t need to live at 1716 Kanawha Boulevard E., Charleston, also known as the Governor’s Mansion.

“If you knew what all I did, how much I’m here and how much I’m going all over the place and everything, I use this mansion as it needs to be used,” Justice said Friday afternoon.

“I mean, I use it as my residence or my place of doing business or whatever, for what it needs to be used, for whatever I’m trying to get done. I don’t use it as a perk. You know, and I don’t want to use it as a perk. I just don’t want to do that.”

In response to a followup question about the Constitution’s specific wording about residing at the seat of government, Justice said, “But I’m here. I’m here all the bloomin’ time.”

The state Constitution always has and continues to address where officers of the executive branch should live: “They shall reside at the seat of government during their terms of office, keep there the public records, books and papers pertaining to their respective offices, and shall perform such duties as may be prescribed by law.”

That applies to the governor, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer, agriculture commissioner and attorney general.

Justice has taken umbrage with complaints, extolling his own work ethic and casting the complaints as caring about where he sleeps rather than what he gets done.

He also has discussed how easy he is to reach at all hours on his flip phone — although on Friday he said it has started to fail for both calls and texts.

The governor is being represented by outside counsel Carey, Scott, Douglas & Kessler.

Those attorneys on July 12 filed a motion to dismiss, saying Sponaugle had not complied with a requirement to provide written notice at least 30 days prior to an action against a government agency to the chief officer of the agency and the Attorney General.

Sponaugle responded with an argument that he’d met the requirements for the kind of lawsuit he filed.

Sponaugle has also been trying to get the governor to turn over information about his whereabouts.

For example: “Admission Request No. 1: Please admit that you have not resided at the West Virginia Governor’s Mansion located at 1716 Kanawha Boulevard E., Charleston, W.Va., since January 16, 2017.”

And: “Interrogatories Request No. 7: Please provide in detail how many nights you spent overnight at the West Virginia Governor’s Mansion located at 1716 Kanawha Boulevard E., Charleston, W.Va., since January 16, 2017. Include the dates of the overnights that you spend there in your response.”

Also: “Interrogatories Request No. 14: Describe in detail how you can keep up with the daily functions of the Office of Governor when you are not present at the West Virginia Capitol located at 1900 Kanawha Boulevard E., Charleston.”

The lawyers for the governor have filed their own motions saying Justice shouldn’t be required to answer such questions right now because they believe the case is so likely to be dismissed.

They say Sponaugle “has served invasive and burdensome discovery requests seeking detailed and sensitive information about such matters as respondent’s sleeping habits, Respondent’s movements throughout the State and the location of Respondent’s personal property.

“Respondent should not be forced to devote time and resources to opposing and/or responding to these discovery requests during the pendency of his motion to dismiss.”

Sponaugle has filed a motion to compel discovery. He also responded to the objections by saying any delay would do a great injustice to the citizens of the state of West Virginia.

“This action for Writ of Mandamus seeks to compel performance of an explicit constitutional duty by an individual who is holding a state office, who for personal reasons is ignoring that duty because it is an inconvenience to him,” Sponaugle wrote.

“Petitioner asserts he is concerned about respondent’s habitual absenteeism and its effect on the poor productivity of state government, lack of public confidence by citizens of state government and declining morale among many state workers.”

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