Lawsuit against W.Va. governor: $20,900 fight over the meaning of ‘reside’

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Taxpayers have spent $20,900 defending the Governor’s Office in the case over where Jim Justice resides.

The latest round is 11 a.m. Wednesday in Kanawha Circuit Court. The case focuses on whether Justice violates the state Constitutions’ requirement for the chief executive to reside at the seat of government.

The cost is what’s been billed by almost a year of defense by outside counsel.

The Governor’s Office says taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook for a lawsuit so frivolous. Justice acknowledges living in Lewisburg, but says he works hard and may be reached day and night.

“Obviously it was not the governor’s choice to incur the expense,” said Brian Abraham, general counsel for the Governor’s Office.

The plaintiff, Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, says the easiest way to resolve the case would be for the governor to move to the seat of government.

“Move to the seat of government and quit running up the tab,” said Sponaugle, a lawyer in Franklin who sued in his capacity as a citizen.

Billings for outside counsel started last June and have continued through the early of this year. It’s likely that the state hasn’t yet received the legal billings for the most recent work. MetroNews obtained the invoices through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The Governor’s Office obtained outside counsel through a request for proposal with the Attorney General’s Office.

Mike Carey

The firm selected was Carey, Scott, Douglas & Kessler. The lead attorney, Mike Carey, has represented the Governor’s Office before, investigating contracts and the state Department of Commerce’s handling of long-term flood relief. That representation, which was handled without a competitive bid for outside counsel, cost about $20,000 last spring.

Carey, a former U.S. Attorney, also represents Justice and his family in private business matters.

He was one of the attorneys representing The Greenbrier Resort and related Justice holdings against dozens of insurers. He has also represented Justice companies in federal disputes with the Mine, Safety and Health Administration and the Office of Surface Mining.

Abraham suggests those are not complications.

“I don’t think so because the issues in this are unique to the governor serving as the governor of the state of West Virginia and those business issues are private family business,” Abraham said. “One obviously has nothing to do with the other.”

The residency lawsuit was thrown out of Kanawha Circuit Court once because Sponaugle had not provided required notice of a lawsuit involving a state agency. Then he filed with the state Supreme Court, which declined to take it up. So now it’s back in Kanawha Circuit Court.

That’s all stretched out the process, making the legal bills add up.

“People find it at best a side show,” Abraham said. “It’s really taking away from the business of the governor.”

The state Constitution addresses 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.”

In a Feb. 19 filing, lawyers from Carey, Scott, Douglas and Kessler wrote that the constitutional language is not so clear cut.

“The purported duty to ‘reside” at the seat of government is so nebulous and laden with discretion that any writ granted in this case would necessarily involve prescribing the manner in which the Governor shall act thereby improperly encroaching on his autonomy,” wrote the lawyers.

Sponaugle’s latest filing disagrees, down to the very words.

“The West Virginia statutory and constitutional duty for the Governor of the State of West Virginia to ‘reside’ can neither be described as ‘nebulous’ nor labeled as ‘discretionary.’ It can accurately be described as precise and mandatory.”

Who pays for the governor’s legal representation isn’t an aspect of the lawsuit. But Sponaugle questioned it during a telephone interview.

Isaac Sponaugle

Sponaugle suggested a private citizen could bring up the issue with the state Ethics Commission, asking whether Justice is using his public office for legal representation to defend his personal living situation.

“I don’t think the taxpayer should be floating the bill for this,” Sponaugle said. “Because he’s not acting in his official capacity as governor it’s his own personal preference where he decides to reside.”

Abraham said he agrees the taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook, but he said the Governor’s Office needs representation in court.

“We wouldn’t want to spend any money on it,” he said. “We don’t think we should spend any money on it. But Delegate Sponaugle continues to pursue it and filed it against the governor.”

Brian Abraham

Abraham noted that the governor has donated the post-tax pay from his $150,000 a year salary as governor to the Department of Education for the Communities in Schools program.

Abraham pointed to a list of accomplishments recently distributed by the Governor’s Office. Those include two years of pay raises for most state employees, ongoing emphasis on state roads and implementation of an EZPass program meant to give West Virginia residents a better deal on tolled highway travel.

“His accomplishments list stands out in stark contrast to these allegations that he’s never around doing something. You can’t get those things accomplished if you’re never around. It’s going to ring hollow in court. We expect that would be grounds for it just to go away,” Abraham said.

“It doesn’t ring with a lot of veracity when you say he doesn’t do anything. It’s just silliness.”

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