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Justice on the hook for $2.5 million helicopter default

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The saga of Jim Justice’s helicopter has reached a conclusion.

A federal judge has entered a final judgment for $2,550,000 on a claim against the governor and his family for defaulting on a helicopter loan.

U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan issued a summary judgment on June 20. Then on Nov. 1, the judge entered the final consent judgment. A U.S. Marshal was empowered to enforce the judgment.

The court fight went on for more than a year, with the lender at one point insisting that the governor should show up in person to participate in a settlement conference.

Moreover, the governor was personally on the hook for the debt after personally guaranteeing the loan.

In a recently-released transcript from a June 19 hearing, lawyers for the lender Citizen Asset Finance described how far they had to press the default issue on the governor and his family business.

“Certainly a national bank like Citizens does not take joy in suing sitting politicians,” said William Thorness, an attorney for the lender.

“I mention that, judge, because this is kind of an aberration. I do a lot of financial institution work, and banks want to get paid, certainly, but they do not want to raise public ire, or suing a sitting governor is not something they take joy in.”

Thorness was describing that context to urge resolution to the case.

“That should help explain how challenging it has been to get movement in this case; movement in terms of any kind of settlement to address this deficiency,” he said.

Justice Aviation, one of the companies owned by the governor and his family, was sued Sept. 19, 2017, in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The lawsuit originally was for a $4 million debt on an AgustaWestland S.p.A. model A109S helicopter that was purchased in 2009.

Justice, years before becoming governor, signed a 2009 guaranty agreement on the loan, which exposed him to personal liability.

On Jan. 11, 2017, the lender and Justice’s businesses entered into a forbearance agreement, which is a special agreement to delay a foreclosure. That was five days before Justice’s inauguration as governor.

At that point, the debt was no less than $4,283,631.73, the lawsuit claimed.

Last September, Justice’s companies actually did sell the helicopter for $2,100,000.

That whittled down the debt to a little more than $2 million.

The governor described his view of the helicopter dispute during a June 4 press conference.

Justice described refinancing the helicopter loan, followed shortly by a major mechanical problem.

“The whole tail boom cracked and literally could have killed me in a second,” he said. “The entire tail boom in a brand spanking new helicopter broke.”

After that, Justice said, he demanded a new helicopter.

“They took it and said ‘We’re not doing that.’ It’s just like if your car blows up and you’ve had it two days. You want a new one,” the governor said.

Time passed without resolution, the governor said.

He then described another attempt to return it to the seller.

“And you know what happened? The tail boom almost flew off of it again. And this is a very reputable — the top of the line — helicopter people, and they’ve almost killed me two times.

“I said ‘I’m not taking it back. No way. No way.’ Helicopters keep their value like crazy. That helicopter should have sold for $5 million or $6 million.”

Justice said that back story about the helicopter dispute might have affected how people viewed the lawsuit.

“But you don’t know any of this. You don’t know any of it,” he said.

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