****Particularly instructive is the case of Kentucky Fuel, one of more than a dozen coal mining companies owned by Justice and his children and run out of Roanoke, Virginia. In 2014, Justice personally signed an agreement with the state of Kentucky promising that he would “unconditionally and irrevocably guarantee” that reclamation work on Kentucky Fuel’s mines would be completed by November 2015. In return, Justice negotiated down $4.5 million of civil penalties to just $1.5 million. Fast-forward to 2019. The work is still not done. Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet (the state’s EPA) has asked a judge to snap back the remaining $3 million in fines, plus interest. The agency says it no longer trusts Justice’s companies. It seems it has reason. Kentucky Fuel was also caught mining without a permit in an area where the state had ordered work halted three times: “Kentucky Fuel removed coal as if the Commonwealth’s cessation orders did not exist.” Justice says the agency should thank him, not criticise him, for fixing 500 mining violations in Kentucky over the past five years. “The Environment Cabinet has continued to be unappreciative, jealous and vindictive,” he says. His son, Jay, points out that many of the reclamation liabilities date back decades, well before Justice owned them: “The regulators allowed the reclamation prior to Justice to get in a catastrophic situation—until along came the billionaire.” Justice companies have filed personal lawsuits against state employees, alleging in one case the “malicious” closure of a Justice-owned mine. The agency says Justice is attempting to “intimidate the Kentucky government into renegotiating” the 2014 deal. So the agency has advised its employees to be careful: “Because the Justice defendants have no apprehensions about filing personal lawsuits based on falsehoods and fabrications, Cabinet employees have been instructed to avoid speaking with the defendants without a Cabinet attorney present.” Agency attorneys have expressed awe at the mendacity, arguing in court filings that “few will choose public service if coal billionaires are allowed to intimidate state employees with impunity.” Justice says Kentucky “should forever be most appreciative” for the work he’s already done. Old coal mines are not the only liabilities that Justice’s companies have in Kentucky. Tim Bates, the attorney for Kentucky’s Knott County (population 15,000), sued Kentucky Fuel last year, seeking $2 million in back taxes—vital funding for rural schools. After getting no response, a court-appointed receiver will now seek to seize and auction off any Kentucky Fuel assets it can find in the state. Bates has long since stopped being surprised at the behavior. “I tend to believe that’s just his way of doing business,” says Bates, who is also an attorney in private practice. “They don’t pay, and they force counterparties to get judgments against them.”
****Months after he was elected, Justice realised that being a Democratic governor wasn’t going to be fun during the Trump years. At a Trump rally in August 2017 he announced that he was switching coats and embraced Trumpism. “I love him to death,” says Justice of the president. “You know we are a lot alike.” Both are unabashedly populist billionaires who inherited businesses in cutthroat industries and built those companies into larger empires. Like Trump, Justice has a history of not paying vendors. Like Trump, Justice makes excuses for not putting more than a handful of his bewildering array of companies into a blind trust while serving in public office. Like Trump, Justice says his children—son Jay and daughter Jillean—are running the empire. But, unlike Trump, Justice grew up in coal country. His dad, James Sr, studied aeronautical engineering at Purdue and was an Air Force captain during World War II. He co-founded coal miner Ranger Fuel in the early 1960s and then sold it in 1969 for $70 million (about $485 million in today’s money) to Pittston, a Virginia-based mining concern. In 1971, Jim Sr. formed Bluestone in the coal fields of West Virginia’s McDowell County. For two decades Bluestone produced 500,000 tonnes per year of what’s known as metallurgical coal, a premium hard coal with high heat content for use in steelmaking. Justice worked for his dad for decades, but he still remembers going into his father’s office when he was 19 with a problem. “I said, ‘Dad, there’s nothing I can do,’ and all of a sudden the desk explodes and he grabbed me around my shirt and slammed me down against that desk and said, ‘Damn you, there’s always something you can do, and you damn well better always remember that.’ ” When his father died in 1993, Justice took over.
****Also like Trump, Justice has complicated Russian connections. In 2008, the average price of metallurgical coal jumped over 50 percent, and Justice’s Bluestone sold 2.8 million tonnes of it that year. That attracted the attention of Mechel, the Moscow-based mining giant. In 2009, Justice sold Bluestone and its 725 million tonnes of reserves to Mechel for $436 million in cash, a chunk of preferred stock, plus the assumption of more than $100 million in debt. On top of all that, the Russians were contractually on the hook to buy additional coal from Justice. He found reserves that he said were worth $165 million. Mechel balked, claiming the coal was worth only $25 million. In 2014, Mechel sued Justice and Weir International, a mining consultancy, for fraud. According to Mechel’s complaint, “Justice knowingly and with the intent to defraud and/or negligently made or caused to be made misrepresentations and omissions of material fact.”
****West Virginia politicians on both sides of the aisle are concerned. Mitch Carmichael, the Republican president of the state Senate, is open-minded about Justice’s declared support for businesses and workers alike. Lawsuits “can be legitimate occurrences,” he says. “Everybody can have situations.” But Justice’s behavior forms a pattern: “He’s either the unluckiest person or he has a propensity to do these type of things.” “We thought with his success in business he would have forged relationships and parlay that into investments in West Virginia,” says Corey Palumbo, a Democratic state senator. “He hasn’t.” A much-hyped $84 billion deal with a Chinese energy company looking to invest in West Virginia natural gas has stalled, a victim of Trump’s trade war. All agree that the state needs to invest more in entrepreneurs, but it’s harder to attract them when the face of your state is a deadbeat billionaire. “Business owners and entrepreneurs expect an even playing field when choosing where to locate. They want everyone—the governor included—to be treated equally under the law,” says Republican delegate Joshua Higginbotham. There’s also a strong sense that Justice is too distracted to be doing a full job for West Virginians. Isaac Sponaugle, a Democratic delegate, has filed a lawsuit meant to force Justice to abide by the state constitution’s requirement that the governor “reside” in Charleston, the state’s capital. Justice says he doesn’t need to live in the governor’s mansion when he’s perfectly comfortable in his modest house in Lewisburg. “I’m not going to throw the state’s money away, and I don’t need somebody taking care of my laundry,” he says. “He just won’t work,” US senator (and former West Virginia governor) Joe Manchin declared in March. “Doesn’t show up. You can’t run the state from the Greenbrier. That’s just not the way it works.” Justice responds that Manchin is a “slick” politician. “He has an axe to grind.” Indeed, last year Justice fired Manchin’s wife from her job as state secretary for education and the arts. Justice says he’s getting right with all his creditors and that he’s owed lots of money as well—like the $70 million he’s trying to get out of insurers for 2016 flood damage at the Greenbrier. His son says the companies’ reclamation liabilities are “a thimbleful” of what they used to be. Last August the governor called a press conference in which he appeared with the West Virginia secretary of revenue to declare that his companies had taken care of their state tax obligations. They did not reveal how much was paid, but state records for his biggest companies show a release of liens last summer tied to more than $8 million of unpaid taxes. Justice said that his taxes are settled in West Virginia once and for all. As for his obligations outstanding in other states: “It may take a little while.”