CHARLESTON, W.Va. — When Gov. Jim Justice uses the state airplane to travel around West Virginia, the King Air 350 almost always makes a side trip or two to Lewisburg.
The governor has continued to make his home in Lewisburg, a two-hour drive from Charleston and a choice that has sparked controversy over whether Justice complies with the state Constitutions’ residency requirement.
Records from the state Aviation Division show that during Justice’s time in office, the state plane has made more than 100 side trips to Lewisburg and counting.
That counts flights both by Justice and his wife, Cathy. It also counts flights when pilots have gone to Lewisburg in advance of a trip, sometimes staying overnight at a local hotel at a rate of $94 a room.
The first instance actually occurred Dec. 2, 2016, after Justice had been elected governor but prior to his inauguration. He traveled to Washington, D.C., with his transition team leader, Larry Puccio, and former State Police Captain Greg Bowman.
The King Air 350 traveled to Lewisburg the night before, then left for D.C. on Dec. 2, returning to Lewisburg and then flying back to Charleston, where the airplane is traditionally maintained.
The number of side flights to or from Lewisburg, as counted by MetroNews, numbered 103 over that time.
The King Air is billed at $1,400 per hour to use. A flight between Lewisburg and Charleston is about 18 to 25 minutes, with variables including weather and fuel load. So flights between Lewisburg and Charleston are usually billed at about $550.
Multiply $550 times 100 flights from 2017 to now and that’s $55,000.
Brian Abraham, general counsel for the Governor’s Office, acknowledged the flights to and from Lewisburg.
“Not having the list in front of me, there’s no denying the record speaks for itself,” Abraham said in a telephone interview about the flights. “In terms of air miles, it’s an insignificant deviation.”
The flights are not a daily occurrence, but typically have happened when Justice traveling to events in cities around the state such as Wheeling, Morgantown or Martinsburg.
“There is no question every event you will find is tied to official business,” Abraham said.”There’s not any instance of personal use or any use of flying back and forth from Lewisburg to Charleston. He drives every time on his own dime and that continues to be the case.”
To divert to or from Lewisburg doesn’t add much to such trips, Abraham contended.
An airplane trip between Charleston and Lewisburg is about 68 miles versus a 112-mile drive.
“If there’s an event, like it’s in Morgantown and the first lady is in Lewisburg, the plane is normally stationed at Charleston. They would obviously deviate the less than 15 minutes or so it takes and go to Morgantown,” Abraham said. “They may have gone down there the evening before because of fog rolling in.
“This insinuation that the governor was using it to commute back and forth to Charleston is patently false.”
The state’s Beechcraft King Air 350 is a comfortable, twin turbine-powered business aircraft that accommodates nine passengers. The State of West Virginia has been operating King Airs since 1978.
Abraham suggested Justice’s use of the state airplane is less frequent than previous governors.
Justice made a similar statement during a June 15, 2018, press conference after state Democratic leaders had criticized his choice to live in Lewisburg, saying his residence choice made him out of touch on helping disaster victims.
The governor, using a list on a whiteboard, contended he was saving the state money in several ways.
“I don’t fly on the plane unless it’s an absolute necessity,” he said, “and I’ve done that about five times.”
Justice added, “I don’t believe in wasting the state’s money. I didn’t come here to waste the state’s money.”
Questions about how elected officials use state vehicles aren’t uncommon.
In Kentucky, Gov. Matt Bevin has faced questions this month about his use of a Kentucky State Police plane for out-of-state travel. Bevin resisted describing the reasons for the trips until his office released a summary late last week.
“The real question is: Why does it matter what the purpose (of the trip) is?” Bevin told reporters last week. “Did the taxpayers pay for it? If they did, then they should know the purpose. If they didn’t pay for it, it’s none of their business.”
West Virginia’s former Supreme Court Chief Justice Allen Loughry was convicted in federal court last year on multiple charges that he had used a state-owned vehicle and state purchasing card for personal travel. Loughry countered that his trips were official business that sometimes included side trips home to visit family.
His fellow justice, Menis Ketchum, similarly pleaded guilty to a federal wire fraud charge after admitting to repeated personal use of a state vehicle and state fuel card while commuting from his Huntington home to work at the Supreme Court and to and from a private golf club in western Virginia.
“This is 10 times as bad, as far as I’m concerned, as what Ketchum did,” said Mike Folk, who is challenging Justice in the Republican primary for governor.
Folk, a former state delegate, is also a professional airline pilot. He looked over the governor’s flight history during a trip to Denver for simulator training. He didn’t like what he saw.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate, and I don’t think the citizens would find it appropriate,” said Folk, a Martinsburg resident.
Folk’s own work experience made him particularly tuned in to overnight trips to Lewisburg by pilots who were positioning the airplane. In some instances, the King Air would be flown to Lewisburg without any passengers listed and the next day it would return to Charleston without any passengers listed.
“It looks like the governor changed his mind,” Folk said as he looked over the flight schedule.
Folk concluded that the side flights to Lewisburg are unnecessary.
“This proves he is not residing at the seat of government,” Folk said. “On top of that, he’s making the taxpayers pay for it.”
The use of the airplane proves there’s a price for the governors’ residence choice, Sponaugle said last week.
“If he’d follow the Constitution and reside at the seat of government as the Constitution requires, he’d save at least $60,000,” said Sponaugle, a lawyer in Franklin. “All that is undue expense.”
Talk of the governor’s flights to and from Lewisburg has been going on for weeks.
Sponaugle briefly mentioned it during an August 22 radio interview with Wheeling’s Howard Monroe, a day after a court hearing in the residency lawsuit.
Rob Cornelius, who has been chairman of the Wood County GOP, discussed the Lewisburg flights on August 28 on Tom Roten’s Huntington area radio show.
Cornelius, a frequent Justice critic, sees the flights as a waste of state resources.
“It’s really important because it’s an abuse of the public trust,” Cornelius said in a telephone interview with MetroNews.
“This is use of state vehicles and state equipment that you and I don’t have access to for personal use, campaign use and some use we’re just not sure of. Maybe more importantly, this is all happening because the governor refuses and has refused to live in Charleston.”
In particular, Cornelius questions a set of flights from this past spring.
On May 3, the governor flew from Charleston to Morgantown for official events, then drove from Morgantown to Preston County for an official event. He then drove to Clarksburg to meet with local elected leaders about local issues — an official meeting. While in Clarksburg, the governor spoke at a Harrison County GOP dinner. On the evening of May 3, the plane picked the governor up in Clarksburg and flew to Lewisburg.
“Nothing about this travel was inappropriate or unethical, Abraham stated.
“When traveling for political reasons, the Governor flies his own aircraft and pays for those flights with campaign or personal funds.”
He contends the flights, overall, represent costs that would be unnecessary if Justice would reside at the seat of government. Cornelius said that is different, though, from the message the governor often conveys.
“It absolutely does run contrary,” Cornelius said, “in the sense that he claims the way he conducts himself doesn’t cost the public extra money.”