Heavy hitters in Justice cases share links, but aim to avoid conflicts

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice and his companies have obtained high-profile representation over the past weeks, and the interconnected relationships have resulted in steps to avoid conflict.

George Terwilliger

During a circuit court hearing last week over the governor’s residency issues, attorney George Terwilliger took the lead. He is a former United States Deputy Attorney General now leading the white collar practice at the McGuireWoods firm in Washington, D.C.

Another senior partner in the white collar litigation department at McGuireWoods is Richard Cullen Sr. He is a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, a position currently held by Terwilliger’s son, Zachary Terwilliger.

There is no indication that Cullen Sr. has been advising the Justice companies, but he does have close relationships with others in the multifaceted Justice story.

Richard Cullen Jr

Richard Cullen Jr. has been speaking on behalf of the Justice companies for the past several months. The partner at the Beltway firm PLUS Communications has been quoted in stories at West Virginia MetroNews, The Charleston Gazette-Mail and Ogden newspapers. 

Meanwhile, Thomas Cullen, one of the four children of Richard Cullen Sr., is the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia.

That’s the federal court district where the U.S. Attorney and the Mine Safety and Health Administration sued 23 Justice companies this spring over years of unpaid coal mine safety penalties.

MetroNews asked the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia how conflict could be avoided, considering the other connections with the Justice companies.

“We have consulted ethics officials at the Department of Justice regarding the roles of McGuireWoods and PLUS Communications and have carefully followed all guidance regarding potential conflicts of interest,” stated Brian McGinn, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney.

Asked for more description about what such guidance might be, McGinn replied, “In terms of our district, we are going to just stick with the statement we issued earlier.”

A spokesman for PLUS Communications, which has been speaking on behalf of the Justice companies since July, acknowledged the connections but said conflicts are being avoided.

“George Terwilliger is retained by the Governor individually, at no cost to the state, to represent the Governor, the respondent in the petition. Richard Cullen Sr. has no involvement at all with Mr. Justice on any matter,” stated Brian Walsh, a partner at PLUS Communications.

“As two of the top public affairs and law firms in the country, respectively, PLUS Communications has independently worked with Mr. Terwilliger and McGuire Woods on many legal and communications projects.  PLUS has not been involved with any issues pertaining to the Western District of Virginia and even if that were to change at some future date, Richard would not be involved in that aspect of the work.”

Jim Justice

Justice and his companies have disputes at various levels of the court system, perhaps prompting the heightened levels of legal and public relations representation.

Not only is Justice the governor but he also has an estimated worth of $1.5 billion with holdings in coal, timber, agriculture and recreation. His annual ethics disclosure lists more than 90 companies.

The many prominent roles have led to conflicts in court.

Justice, as governor, is a defendant in circuit court over whether he meets the state Constitution’s requirement to reside at the seat of government. Justice has continued to make his home in Lewisburg, a couple of hours at the Capitol.

Separately, some state government agencies were subpoenaed several months ago with questions about their interactions with Justice companies. The Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice signed off on those subpoenas, which referenced a grand jury.

There has been no apparent outcome so far.

Then there’s the lawsuit by MSHA and the federal prosecutor for the Western District of Virginia. McGinn, the spokesman for the federal prosecutor’s office, described the significance of that lawsuit.

“In late May 2019, after negotiations failed to produce a satisfactory settlement, our office filed a debt-collection suit against the Justice-owned entities for unpaid fines and penalties incurred under the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act,” he stated to MetroNews.

“This civil suit was the first and, to our knowledge, is the only federal debt collection-action brought by a U.S. attorney’s office against these entities for mine-safety violations.  As our recent court filings indicate, we are aggressively litigating this suit and will continue these efforts until the defendants pay what they owe.”

The Justice companies have not yet provided their side of that story in court filings. A few of the Justice companies have moved to be dismissed from the case because of a jurisdiction issue.

When the lawsuit was first filed, both representatives of MSHA and U.S. Attorney Cullen made public statements about the significance of the allegations.

“This is unacceptable, and, as indicated by this suit, we will hold them accountable,” Thomas Cullen stated at the time.

Thomas Cullen

Cullen’s family has a long history of public service. Appointed to the U.S. Attorney’s position in 2018, Thomas Cullen has already received commendation for his focus on white nationalist violence, through a Washington Post Magazine profile.

His father, Richard Cullen Sr., is a former Attorney General for the state of Virginia. Prior to that, he had been named by President George H.W. Bush to serve as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Richard Cullen Sr.

Richard Cullen has spent most of his adult life at the McGuireWoods firm, where he was named chairman in 2006. Two years ago, he stepped down from the chairman’s role but has remained with the firm as a senior partner.

His focus on white collar issues has led to some headline-grabbing roles.

He represented Vice President Mike Pence during the Mueller investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. He also led a probe into whether Virginia Governor Ralph Northam was depicted in blackface in a yearbook photo. It was inconclusive.

At McGuireWoods, Cullen called it a coup in 2015 when he hired Terwilliger. Their relationship went back years. Cullen and Terwilliger both were on the Florida recount team for George W. Bush during the 2000 election.

Terwilliger leads McGuireWoods’ Strategic Response and Crisis Management practice, having made a career of representing corporations nationally and worldwide.

At the end of this past July, lawyers for Justice filed a motion to admit Terwilliger to the ongoing residency case.

So last week, Terwilliger carried his briefcase up Virginia Street in Charleston, accompanying another former U.S. Attorney, Mike Carey of Charleston. Carey is well known for putting West Virginia Gov. Arch Moore in jail in a 1990 corruption case.

In this instance, both were representing Governor Justice in a lawsuit over where he lives.

Inside the Kanawha Judicial Annex, Terwilliger did most of the talking, asking Kanawha Circuit Judge Charles King to send certified questions to the state Supreme Court regarding how Justice could be compelled to reside anywhere in particular.

King said he would consider the motion. Meanwhile, the judge put a halt to discovery requests such as records reflecting where Justice has been living, tax filings and — potentially — a deposition of the governor himself.

Isaac Sponaugle

The plaintiff, state Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, told reporters after the hearing that the defense team had achieved its goal. He said that was the significance of Terwilliger’s involvement.

“He handles white collar criminal actions,” said Sponaugle, a general practice lawyer in Franklin who brought the residency case as a private citizen.

“Why is he involved in a civil residency case unless it involves a bunch of discovery requests that could be harming to the governor? I don’t know. That’s for you all to look into.”

Terwilliger fielded some questions from local reporters in the hallway outside the courtroom. After a few minutes, though, he and the rest of the defense team pivoted toward the elevator.

MetroNews, at that point, asked about his role in the residency case.

“I’m just helping out,” Terwilliger responded while starting to leave.

The Charleston Gazette-Mail’s Jake Zuckerman then hurried to pose a related question: “Does this increase the bill to the state, to bring on…”

Carey and his firm serve as outside counsel for the Governor’s Office, resulting in a cost of more than $20,000 so far. Terwilliger represents Justice as an individual.

“No, he’s billed separately,” Carey answered.

Zuckerman followed up: “He’s billed separately? To the state?”

“He’s billed separately.”

“Separately to the state?”

“No, not to the state. Personally.”

“Personally to whom?”

The response came as the elevator doors finally shut.

“That’s attorney-client privilege.”

George Terwilliger, an attorney for Gov. Jim Justice, speaks with reporters at the Kanawha Judicial Annex.

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