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In letter, Justice again tries to address conflicts of interest

By ANDREW BROWN

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In an attempt to address concerns about conflicts between his new office and his old businesses, Gov. Jim Justice sent a letter to state employees Monday saying he doesn’t “want a thing from this office.”

“The last thing I want is a conflict of interest between my family’s businesses and state government,” Justice wrote in the letter, which restated his previous remarks on the subject. “Even the slightest whiff of a conflict won’t fly with me.”

Using a tactic of President Donald Trump, Justice’s office tweeted the letter and put it on the governor’s office website. The letter provided few details of how he plans to separate himself from his coal companies, luxury resorts and other financial interests in the state.

Justice’s casino at The Greenbrier is regulated by the state Lottery Commission. His coal companies continue to be regulated by the state Department of Environmental Protection, whose new secretary just fired the agency’s environmental advocate.

His Greenbrier and Glade Springs resorts have received millions of dollars in state advertising money in the past and have been approved for up to $17.6 million in tourism-related tax breaks from the state, as he continues to call for an expanding the state’s tourism efforts. His Department of Revenue will be in charge of overseeing the more than $3 million in unpaid coal severance taxes his companies owed as of Jan. 18.

According to his financial disclosure report, the governor continues to own stocks in DuPont, Chemours, Procter and Gamble, Axiall Corp and Merck & Co., which all have connections to the state.

The governor’s office did not respond to an interview request for this story. Since his election, Justice has largely been unavailable to the media.

In his letter, Justice again claims he is separating himself from his privately owned businesses by handing them over to his children — something that does nothing to ethically separate the governor from those holdings under state law.

“I’ve separated myself from my business holdings by putting my children in charge of our family’s business operations,” he wrote. “I have always taught my children that we will never show nor accept favoritism, but rather achieve our goals through hard work and dedication. I can assure you there is absolutely no expectation on behalf of members of my family of receiving any special treatment.”

The letter gives no indication as to whether Justice believes his businesses, like The Greenbrier, can continue to get matching tourism advertising money or other contacts and incentives from the state government he now runs.

Earlier this month, Justice’s campaign adviser and transition leader Larry Puccio switched roles and registered as a lobbyist for the governor’s resort and coal company.

The businessman-turned-politician again cast aside any suggestion that might divest from his privately held businesses to avoid those conflicts of interest.

“Shuttering all my companies is not an option. It would mean good people would lose their jobs and that just wouldn’t be right,” Justice said insinuating he wouldn’t be able to find a buyer for his businesses. “I want to grow jobs, not lose jobs.”

Ethics attorneys have said as long as Justice or his children continue to own the private businesses that interact with the state, there will continue to be the possibility for conflict.

Conrad Lucas, the state’s Republican Party chairman, also said Justice’s efforts don’t go far enough.

“It is impossible to separate from him the millions in state tax dollars that go annually to his golf tournament and to advertise his resort hotel and casino,” Lucas said. “All of those entities are regulated by parts of the Executive Branch he now runs. The same goes for his coal mines regulated by the West Virginia DEP. Just looking at the width and depth of his holdings, it is impossible for this administration not to be encumbered by self-interest.”

Justice again referenced the possibility of setting up a blind trust — a financial tool that would require Justice to hand over his financial assets to a third party that could legally liquidate those assets and reinvest the money elsewhere. That can be easily accomplished for stocks, but it’s unclear how that would work for privately held businesses Justice wants to continue to own over the course of his four-year term.

“I want to put all of my assets in a blind trust, however, the process has been slowed down by the multitude of financial institutions that work with my family’s companies,” Justice said.

The West Virginia Ethics Commission would be responsible for reviewing and approving such a proposal. Rebecca Stepto, the commission’s executive director, said Monday no such plan was on the agenda for commission’s meeting this week.

In the meantime, Justice’s letter tells all of the DEP, tourism, revenue and other state employees who will deal with his businesses he doesn’t want “any special consideration or favoritism by direct or implied communication.”

“I expect all laws, regulations and policies to be strictly adhered to and enforced with respect to any business associated with my family,” he said.

He asks state employees to report ethical problems with his own companies up the chain of command, which ultimately leads to his office.

“I ask that you conduct yourself at all times in a manner that avoids even the appearance of impropriety,” Justice said. “In doing so, you will have my full support regarding your professional efforts and my enduring appreciation for your dedication to our state.”

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