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Welcome to the Greenbrier, the Governor-Owned Luxury Resort Filled With Conflicts of Interest

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The Greenbrier Resort. Photo: foxtail_1/Creative Commons

Gov. Jim Justice is West Virginia’s richest man and owns its most storied resort. When lobbyists and state agencies book there, he profits. Here’s how the governor, dubbed “Big Jim,” became West Virginia’s little Trump.

On a sunny Monday afternoon two and a half years ago, Jim Justice, the wealthiest man in West Virginia, took the oath of office as the state’s 36th governor.

Standing at the base of the Capitol steps in Charleston, he assured his fellow West Virginians that his vast business empire of coal mines, vacation resorts and agricultural companies — many of them regulated by the state agencies he would soon control — posed no conflicts with his new job.

“I want absolutely nothing. Nothing,” Justice said. “I don’t want a thing for me or my family in any way. All I want is goodness for this incredible state and its incredible people.”

Today, Justice’s coal mines are inspected by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, agencies whose top employees the governor appoints. And his casino is regulated by West Virginia’s Lottery Commission, another agency under the chief executive’s control.

The Greenbrier represents only a slice of Justice’s holdings, estimated by Forbes to be worth as much as $1.5 billion. But the iconic resort’s outsized role in West Virginia politics has made it an unparalleled ethical thicket for the governor.

Before taking office, Justice benefited from a number of state agencies, as well as special interest groups, using his resort to host marquee meetings, retreats and conferences. In 2015, the state spent more than $260,000 there. So, to avoid conflicts of interest as governor, his administration says it imposed a “moratorium” on state spending at The Greenbrier.

But a Charleston Gazette-Mail and ProPublica investigation has found that Justice continues to profit from state business, with agencies spending more than $106,000 at his resort since he took office. The Tourism Office features The Greenbrier in a state advertising campaign that launched last year.

Meanwhile, some of West Virginia’s most powerful trade groups are increasingly picking up the food and lodging tabs for lawmakers, as well as top state agency officials subject to the administration’s spending ban, according to a review of lobbyist disclosure reports filed with the state Ethics Commission. Outlays from the state Chamber of Commerce, for instance, more than tripled during Justice’s first year in office.

And as The Greenbrier has faced serious financial pressures, from a major flood and a legal battle with insurers, Justice has used the power of his office to help ensure its survival.

Last year, as the state’s chief executive, he decided to include The Greenbrier in a federal “opportunity zone.” Intended to help underdeveloped communities, the designation makes new investments in the targeted area eligible for lucrative tax breaks.

At the same time, Justice and Greenbrier officials sought additional assistance from Greenbrier County, where the resort has long been the largest employer. Working together, they pressed county commissioners to set aside more than $10 million in taxpayer funds to finance or jump-start projects related to The Greenbrier. The proposed upgrades range from a new laundry to a long-planned ski area.

The governor’s office did not respond to multiple requests for an interview with Justice, but queries were referred to a spokesman for Justice’s companies.

In a prepared response to written questions from the Gazette-Mail and ProPublica, spokesman Richard Cullen Jr. said, “Mr. Justice has every right to have business interests as governor and he will continue to demonstrate great sensitivity to ethical considerations.”

For much of the past two and a half years, the governor has weathered public scrutiny as his businesses wrestled with state and federal regulators over fines and penalties, with vendors over missed payments and with tax officials in West Virginia and other states over delinquent corporate taxes. But as Justice prepares to face voters again next year, the intermingling of The Greenbrier with West Virginia government is causing growing legal and political headaches.

“It’s wrong,” said U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat who supported Justice in 2016 but split with him when the governor switched to the GOP less than a year after taking office. Manchin attended the inaugural ball and his political committee donated $2,500 to the event, although he now condemns Justice’s decision to use his own resort.

“It’s called public service, not self-service,” Manchin said. “This sort of stuff is not who we are.”

Complicating matters, in March, prosecutors from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section issued a subpoena for state Commerce Department records concerning the administration’s dealings with The Greenbrier. Weeks later, investigators subpoenaed more records, this time from the state Department of Revenue and its Tax Division, about the resolution of a multimillion-dollar tax debt related to the governor’s businesses.

Justice has denied any wrongdoing.

“In an organization as big as our organization, you’re surely going to be able to find something that doesn’t look right or whatever,” the governor said during an April news conference. “But I promise you to God above … you’re never going to find anything that Jim Justice has purposely done to benefit Jim Justice.”

The Greenbrier Resort owner and chairman Jim Justice attends the gala opening of The Greenbrier Casino Club on Friday, July 2, 2010 in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. AP Photo/Evan Agostini for The Greenbrier Resort

“The Emerald City”

James C. Justice II grew up in Raleigh County, not far from The Greenbrier, and still lives in nearby Lewisburg, just a 15-minute drive from the resort. Born in 1951, he came of age during the height of the Cold War, a time when the federal government was secretly building a bunker beneath The Greenbrier, where the nation’s leaders would shelter in the event of a nuclear attack.

Justice’s father was a coal operator and, as a teenager, Justice played golf at the resort. He told his friends it was like Oz, the Emerald City, according to a 2011 interview with The Washington Post.

Justice joined his father’s business in 1976, when he was 25, and expanded into farming corn, wheat and soybeans. When James Sr. died in 1993, his son took charge.

“Over the next 15 years, Jim launched a massive expansion of multiple businesses which included significant coal reserve expansion, Christmas tree farms, cotton gins, turfgrass operations, golf courses, timber enhancement and land projects just to mention a few,” his official biography says. According to the governor’s office, Justice is now the largest farmer east of the Mississippi, with holdings in West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

The most visible expansion of Justice’s empire, however, came in 2009, when he purchased The Greenbrier, one of the nation’s top luxury hotels. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 700-room resort has hosted 27 presidents.

Hit by a global recession after several years of expensive renovations, the resort was in financial peril. Its longtime owner, railroad company CSX Corp., laid off half the staff and filed for bankruptcy, disclosing in its court filing that the property had lost $90 million over the previous five years.

Marriott International had agreed to step in, but Justice also saw an opportunity.

He had recently sold much of his family’s coal holdings to the Russian firm Mechel in a transaction valued at more than $568 million. The billionaire quickly cut a deal to pay CSX $20 million for The Greenbrier and give Marriott a $7.5 million “breakup fee.”

The move instantly raised Justice’s profile, turning the president of a privately held family coal operation into a bit of a celebrity. The Gazette-Mail named him “West Virginian of the Year,” largely because it credited him with saving The Greenbrier.

Within months of his purchase, though, Justice turned to the state for help. Specifically, he wanted $8 million to lure the PGA Tour to his resort for a new professional golf tournament. He argued that such an event would draw thousands of visitors and a giant television audience. Keith Burdette, a former state senator who was then serving as state commerce secretary, balked at the amount Justice was seeking. “I just said, ‘No, we can’t do that,’” he recalled in an interview.

In this Sunday Aug. 1, 2010 file photo, Greenbrier Resort owner Jim Justice speaks on the 18th green after play ended for the Greenbrier Classic golf tournament at the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. Justice, the well-known owner of The Greenbrier resort, admits there’s a certain price to pay for being “the goodwill ambassador for the state.” Photo: Steve Helber/AP Photo, FILE

Still, in 2010, the state ultimately kicked in $1 million and, the next year, it began a lucrative sponsorship that gave state officials access to blocks of rooms and seats on the 18th green, perks that could be used to help woo potential new businesses to West Virginia. Over the next five years, West Virginia contributed an additional $9.3 million to sponsor the popular tournament, according to a review of state spending records and documents that were turned over to a federal grand jury.

Later, Justice’s company successfully lobbied for additional assistance, supporting new state tourism programs that qualified The Greenbrier for up to $15 million in tax breaks. The money served to offset the cost of resort improvements, including an NFL training camp facility and a championship tennis stadium, but the exact amount it received won’t be known until December, when a new disclosure law takes effect.

“America’s Resort,” a Political Liability

Tucked into a valley where the rolling foothills and farmlands of Virginia meet the mountains of West Virginia, The Greenbrier resort has been a central character in the region’s economic and political story for nearly two centuries.

The first large hotel was constructed in the 1850s, becoming a popular playground for, as the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd once put it, “the great and the near-great.” The Rev. Billy Graham, Bing Crosby and Babe Ruth were guests. Among the regulars were prominent politicians, judges, diplomats and socialites.

Today, The Greenbrier calls itself “America’s Resort.” Over the years, the sprawling property was redesigned to evoke Mount Vernon, George Washington’s historic home. A standard room costs $300 a night.

Guests can bowl or play croquet, fish or go skeet shooting, ride horses or learn falconry. For decades, two of the state’s most powerful interest groups, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the West Virginia Coal Association, have used the hotel to host their annual meetings.

“The Greenbrier is great, and it’s one of those places that our people just look forward to going every year,” said Bill Raney, the coal association’s president. “It’s got a long, long history with this industry.”

Justice deepened the resort’s role in West Virginia power circles with the PGA Tour event, which became a key part of the state’s efforts to lure new businesses and jobs.

“There was virtually no recruiting effort that took place during those years when the company we were recruiting didn’t come through the door because of The Greenbrier Classic,” Burdette said.

But not everyone saw the merits of more than $10 million in taxpayer money going to a golf tournament. Early on, some Republican leaders tried to block state funding, arguing that it would be better spent on public infrastructure.

And the further Justice stepped into politics, the bigger a liability the golf sponsorship became.

In early 2015, Justice — a Republican for much of his life — changed his party affiliation to Democrat and promptly declared his bid for governor. He touted The Greenbrier as proof of his business savvy, but his primary opponents picked at the golf tournament, objecting to the state’s financial contributions.

Justice won the Democratic nomination anyway, and as he entered the 2016 general election, he rejected the public funding. “I refuse to listen to the Republican leaders beat up on me,” he said in a campaign statement.

But that didn’t stop GOP nominee Bill Cole. The Republican continued to pound away, saying the golf tournament was just scratching the surface of Justice’s conflicts.

“I think his interactions with state government are huge,” Cole told West Virginia MetroNews at the time. “I see in every aspect of his business, there’s troubling connections.”

Even as his candidate financial disclosure form listed a dozen agencies doing business with The Greenbrier, Justice dismissed the criticism.

Throughout the race, he seemed to double-down on his resort ownership. One campaign ad, featuring Greenbrier employees, touted his success turning the resort around. “He’s done so much for The Greenbrier,” a voiceover said. “Imagine what he could do for the state.”

Justice used the resort for two major fundraisers that earned nearly $270,000 for his campaign. Separately, he donated $223,000 from the resort to the gubernatorial bid, in the form of rooms, catering and entertainment.

That November, Justice won the election. The Greenbrier, however, was in trouble.

A series of strong thunderstorms had brought a major flood across the Greenbrier River Valley. Nearly two-dozen West Virginians died. Hundreds lost their homes and businesses.

The summer storms severely damaged the resort’s golf courses, the hotel and surrounding buildings. The casino was flooded. Work to sell more luxury homes in the nearby Greenbrier Sporting Club ceased, as did plans to construct a ski area for resort guests, hotel lawyers later said in court documents.

But Justice called on tourists to return. “We will not go quietly into the darkness,” Justice said when the resort reopened in July.

“The Biggest House in the State”

Five months later, as Justice transitioned to the governor’s office, he chose his resort as the site of his inaugural ball. He appointed his wife, Cathy, and his daughter, Jill, both of whom held positions with The Greenbrier, as co-chairs of the inaugural committee.

Nick Casey, a longtime Democratic Party leader and treasurer of the committee, said he briefly raised the issue of a potential conflict of interest with Justice and his family.

“I said, ‘Can we spend this money on somewhere the guy owns?’” Casey recalled in a recent interview. “But there weren’t any detailed discussions. He said, ‘No, we’ll do it at The Greenbrier.’”

Cullen, the Justice companies spokesman, noted that The Greenbrier is a “premier destination, not just in West Virginia, but the entire country,” and is “a big part of the state’s history and employs thousands of people.”

“Governor Justice is proud of that history and his family’s role in it,” Cullen said. “There was never a discussion about having the [inaugural ball] anywhere else.”

If anyone was troubled by the decision, few said so publicly at the time. Donations poured in to the committee, with Justice easily raising more than twice the amount his immediate predecessors had.

But privately, some prominent powerbrokers wondered about a potential conflict.

“I was like: ‘Isn’t that interesting? What is the reaction to that going to be?’” said Steve Roberts, president of the state Chamber of Commerce, which had endorsed Justice’s Republican opponent. Roberts said he considered not attending the inaugural ball. “But at the end of the day, this person is going to be governor for four years, and no one wants to be the one person who is left out.”

He added, “If I had the biggest house in the state and could have people over, I would do it.”

When The Herald-Dispatch newspaper, in Huntington, asked the Ethics Commission about the inaugural, agency staff members said the event fell outside their jurisdiction; the committee members weren’t public officials and they weren’t spending public money.

“A governor becomes subject to the [Ethics] Act when he is sworn in as a public official,” Ethics Commission Executive Director Rebecca Stepto later told the Gazette-Mail and ProPublica.

For Justice, that moment came hours before the Jan. 16, 2017, ceremony at the Capitol. Standing before dozens of spectators in the chapel at The Greenbrier, he took the oath of office just after midnight as his resort live-streamed the event on Facebook.

The Greenbrier’s Twitter account posted a photo of Justice with the hashtag “WVHistory.”

Over the next six months, as Justice served in the governor’s office, the inaugural committee paid his resort more than $800,000 for “entertainment and meals” at the ball.

The Gazette-Mail and ProPublica asked the Ethics Commission if those payments — made after Justice took office — constituted a violation of the West Virginia law that bars public officials from using their office for private gain.

“This is not a situation contemplated or covered by the Ethics Act,” Stepto said in an email response.

State law encourages inaugural committees to zero out their balances by giving to a charity or a special fund aimed at preserving the state’s historic Governor’s Mansion. Justice’s two predecessors, Manchin and Earl Ray Tomblin, both donated tens of thousands of dollars of leftover money to the latter. Justice’s inaugural committee, however, chose another route.

It closed out its accounts on June 1, 2017, with a $113,000 payment to The Greenbrier.

Casey said the inaugural ball likely left the resort with uncompensated expenses. “I think they ended up saying, ‘How much do you have left?’ and they billed us for that amount,” he said.

Cullen, the Justice companies spokesman, would say only that The Greenbrier charged the inaugural committee “negotiated rates,” as he said it does “with any large event.”

“Even the Slightest Whiff of a Conflict Won’t Fly”

Two weeks after he took office, Justice sent a letter to all state employees, seeking to reassure the West Virginia workforce that, as a “full-time” governor, he was dedicated to public service.

“The last thing I want is a conflict of interest between my family’s business and state government,” the letter said. “Even the slightest whiff of a conflict won’t fly with me.”

In an arrangement that echoed that of Trump, Justice said he had put his adult children in charge of day-to-day operations. He also noted that he was exploring a blind trust. But Justice waved off any suggestion of selling his businesses, equating that with shuttering them. “It would mean good people would lose their jobs and that just wouldn’t be right.”

To be sure, West Virginia’s ethics law does not require public officials to divest from their business or financial interests, or to place their holdings into a blind trust; they simply need to report those assets on their annual financial disclosure forms. But historically, governors have taken the extra steps to avoid the appearance of conflicts. Both Jay Rockefeller, heir to an oil fortune, and Gaston Caperton, who owned one of the largest insurance companies in the nation, used blind trusts when they were governor.

Instead, Justice told state employees that he expected them to regulate his businesses like any other. “I assure you,” he wrote in his letter, “there is absolutely no expectation on behalf of the members of my family of receiving any special treatment.”

Two days later, in his first financial disclosure report as governor, Justice reported that The Greenbrier was still doing business with a handful of government agencies. State law prohibits public officials from having a financial interest in government contracts they control, so Justice administration officials said they issued a “moratorium” on state spending at The Greenbrier.

As a result, resort revenue from the state government dropped considerably. “If avoiding conflicts costs the family businesses money,” Cullen said, “they will opt for the ethical decision every time.”

But, according to a ProPublica and Gazette-Mail review of financial data from the West Virginia Auditor’s Office, more than two-dozen state agencies went on to purchase meals and lodging at the resort during Justice’s tenure, spending a combined total of more than $106,000. Colleges and universities accounted for nearly three-quarters of the amount.

Asked about the spending, Brian Abraham, Justice’s general counsel, told the Gazette-Mail that the governor’s office would “re-educate” state agencies on its moratorium, but that it did not have the authority to regulate university outlays. The Ethics Commission seemed to agree, telling West Virginia University that, while college board members are appointed by the governor, they don’t serve at his “will and pleasure,” like other appointees.

Other potential conflicts soon emerged.

In June 2017, the West Virginia Commerce Department sought special permission to restart its sponsorship of The Greenbrier Classic golf tournament. The bid aimed to restore the public funding that Justice had rejected as a candidate the previous summer. In a letter to the Ethics Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, lawyer Josh Jarrell argued that, without a prominent role in the tournament, the Commerce Department would lose the kind of access it needed to attract firms to West Virginia.

In a sign of the sensitivity of the matter, he noted that the Commerce Department had “not received any requests or direction from the current administration to initiate any efforts” to seek the ethics exemption.

To obtain such waivers, agencies must show the public will suffer “excessive cost, undue hardship or other substantial interference.” Exemptions are more commonly approved for small-town governments, so they can, for example, buy supplies at a local store owned by a council member.

But when news reports emerged describing the administration’s effort to use state money to woo CEOs at the governor’s resort, Justice squashed the Commerce initiative.

“Since I am the governor and have a vested interest in The Greenbrier, I do not want to be involved,” Justice said in a news release. “There is no need to cloud such an important economic and promotional event for our state.”

Still, two months later, the Commerce Department returned to the Ethics Commission with another request. This time, it won approval to spend $5,000 for the registration fee to attend the Chamber of Commerce’s annual Business Summit at The Greenbrier; a portion of the fee went to the resort. Ethics officials, however, refused to allow state funds to be spent for government employees to stay or eat at the property.

Later, the Tourism Office won permission to include The Greenbrier in a new advertising program designed to promote the state’s hospitality industry. Private companies pay for membership and the state matches those contributions. Justice’s hotel soon became the program’s largest participant, kicking in $176,000 for the ad campaign in its first two years.

The Ethics Commission ultimately deferred to the Tourism Office’s argument that The Greenbrier was “key to promoting West Virginia and achieving its mission.” In addition to matching the hotel’s contribution, the agency features the resort as the opening image on its “Where to Stay” website.

“There’s No Point in Dancing Around the Goal”

In August 2017, when Trump came to Huntington, West Virginia, for a political rally, Justice joined him on stage. The governor — “Big Jim,” as the president called him — announced that he was again changing parties, to rejoin the GOP.

Justice told the crowd that he had gone turkey hunting and trout fishing with Donald Trump Jr. and visited the president in the Oval Office.

“This man and myself are not politicians,” Justice said. “We ran to get something done, and we gave up part of our lives. We ran because we want nothing. We ran as our Founding Fathers did years and years ago, to serve.”

Left unspoken was another similarity between the two businessmen-turned-politicians: Their forays into government brought personal profits. Much as foreign dignitaries helped the bottom line for Trump’s hotel in Washington, West Virginia special interests gave The Greenbrier its own boost.

In the Justice era, as government expenditures at the resort dropped, some of the state’s most powerful lobby groups are spending more to host government officials there, according to a Gazette-Mail and ProPublica review of lobbyist disclosure reports filed with the state Ethics Commission.

President Donald Trump, left, reaches out to shake hands with West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, right, at a campaign-style rally at Big Sandy Superstore Arena in Huntington, W.Va., Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017, where Justice announced that he was changing parties to be a Republican. Photo: Susan Walsh/AP Photo

The Chamber of Commerce and the Coal Association have picked up the tab for a growing number of state officials to attend events at The Greenbrier. The list includes lawmakers, Cabinet secretaries and key staffers in the governor’s office.

Over Labor Day weekend in 2017, for example, after the Ethics Commission warned Commerce Department officials not to spend state money on lodging and meals at the Chamber’s summit, the Chamber covered food for Woody Thrasher, the department’s secretary; Chelsea Ruby, its tourism commissioner; and two officials from its Development Office. (Thrasher, through a spokeswoman, said he didn’t realize the Chamber was paying for his staff’s meals.)

Other beneficiaries included Mike Hall, Justice’s chief of staff. The Chamber paid nearly $1,000 for his two-night stay at The Greenbrier. The group spent another $397 to cover one night for Austin Caperton, Justice’s secretary for the state Department of Environmental Protection. In all, the Chamber doled out nearly $10,000 for 21 state officials to attend its annual meeting — more than three times more than in 2015, before Justice ran for governor.

Likewise, the coal association spent $3,600 for state officials to attend its annual meeting last year, more than twice what it spent in 2015.

These actions are entirely legal. While West Virginia law prohibits public officials from accepting gifts, it allows them to accept “reasonable expenses for food, travel and lodging” for a meeting where the official is a speaker or on a panel.

Abraham, Justice’s general counsel, said the same interactions between state officials and business groups happened under previous administrations, but the state paid the bills back then.

“We certainly can’t control where independent organizations decide to schedule their conferences,” Abraham said this week.

Lobbyists say the increased spending at The Greenbrier has nothing to do with Justice or his ownership of the resort.

“We just try to get people who have some influence over us and who our members might want to hear from,” said Raney, president of the Coal Association. “I can’t tell you there has been any change of mind.”

The Chamber agrees.

“There’s no point in dancing around the goal. The goal is to have a relationship with as many people who are making decisions about the state as we can,” said Roberts, the group’s president. “The ideal would be for the state to make those people available, but that has not been our experience.”

A Helping Hand for The Greenbrier

The 2016 floods precipitated an unraveling at The Greenbrier.

Justice and his hospitality firms became embroiled in a protracted fight with insurers over compensation for storm damage; they later alleged in federal courtthat the failure to pay $75 million in claims had pushed The Greenbrier to “near financial insolvency.” (The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed on a technicality.)

At the same time, the resort struggled to find the money to sponsor The Greenbrier Classic, and it lost its prime Fourth of July placement on the PGA Tour schedule.

Amid the financial scramble, in May 2018, Justice announced a new effort that he said would “help to revitalize many areas across West Virginia.”

Opportunity zones were the result of Trump’s federal tax overhaul; governors in each state could select a certain number of poor census tracts, and investors who supported projects in those areas would be eligible for lucrative tax credits.

“This is more great news for our state,” Justice said, releasing a list of 55 opportunity zones.

Workers begin the cleanup of one of the golf courses at The Greenbrier resort in June 2016 after a flood. The flooding damaged the resort and prompted the cancellation of that year’s Greenbrier Classic. Photo: Steve Helber/AP

At the bottom of the first page was the city of White Sulphur Springs, the storm-ravaged home of The Greenbrier. Local officials who applied for the program are hoping it brings new shops and other businesses to a downtown area struggling to rebuild after the flood. But Samantha Jacoby, a tax analyst who has studied opportunity zones for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says the designation could also benefit Justice and his resort.

Some sites in other opportunity zones, she noted, have seen rising property values and could have easier access to credit. And while firms that operate “sin” businesses, such as casinos and liquor stores, face restrictions, some have found loopholes. “It’s not, I don’t think, what was intended,” Jacoby said.

Cullen declined to comment on the governor’s selection.

That same month, Justice sought to advance a separate tax plan to boost the resort.

He wanted Greenbrier County to divert as much as $10 million in property tax revenue to help finance various resort projects, including a ski area and a new laundry. Because Justice owned the resort and the deal would need to be approved by his Commerce Department, he sought an advisory opinion from the Ethics Commission.

But, in an illustration of how the governor’s administration and his business empire can work hand in hand to advance Justice’s corporate agenda, the governor did not write the letter.

According to public records and interviews, Greenbrier lawyers penned the request to the Ethics Commission and took it to the governor’s office, where staff copied it onto the governor’s letterhead, and Justice signed it. While Justice’s resort would benefit from the tax deal, the letter said, “the real winner would no doubt be the residents of Greenbrier County,” who would see a surge in jobs.

About a week later, Justice, withdrew his request. His note on state stationery was relayed to ethics officials by a Greenbrier lawyer.

The resort, however, forged ahead, with its executives seeking to enlist the help of local officials. Larry Klein, vice president and general manager of The Greenbrier Sporting Club, drafted a letter for county commissioners in support of Justice’s proposal — and then asked them to send it to the Ethics Commission under their own names. Much of the document’s language was taken verbatim from the governor’s aborted request.

The county officials declined to send the letter. They said they wanted to spend the tax dollars on other projects, like water and sewer construction, that would help average residents.

Commission President Lowell Rose, who owns a local construction company, said the decision was difficult.

“You have additional pressure you wouldn’t have if he wasn’t the biggest business owner in the area and also the governor,” Rose said.

The Feds Move In

Early in his tenure, Justice placed some of his smaller holdings into a blind trust. And a lawyer for the governor promised the Ethics Commission that Justice would soon add The Greenbrier, among other businesses, to the list, as soon as agreements could be worked out with various lenders.

But well into his third year in office, Justice has abandoned that pledge.

Abraham, the governor’s general counsel, now says a blind trust would be a “facade.”

Cullen added, “Placing The Greenbrier in a blind trust makes no sense because the Governor knows the family owns the business.”

Regardless, federal criminal investigators are looking into the administration’s interactions with The Greenbrier, especially regarding the golf tournament. Among the people whose communications were targeted in the March subpoena: Justice, his children and several resort executives.

The governor pledged to cooperate with the inquiry.

“I’ve always done the right thing in my personal life, my business life, my political life and every part of my life,” Justice said in a statement at the time. “The people of West Virginia know that I have always been an open book, so of course, I am fully cooperating with the investigation.”

At the same time, the governor faces mounting political opposition.

A leading state Democratic lawmaker has sued Justice for living in Greenbrier County, arguing that the West Virginia Constitution requires the governor to reside in Charleston. The lawsuit could be a vehicle to force Justice to turn over a variety of records, including his income tax returns, which, like Trump, the governor refused to make public during the 2016 election.

And Manchin, who continues to hint he will return from the U.S. Senate to seek another term as governor, is far from the only one-time ally who has turned on Justice. In April, Thrasher, Justice’s former Commerce secretary, announced that he would challenge the governor in next year’s Republican primary. Thrasher, owner of a large engineering firm with many state contracts, recently tweeted that, if elected, he would put his holdings into a blind trust.

“Public servants should make decisions 100% based on the citizens they are elected to serve,” he wrote, “and business interests should never be a factor.”

Justice is pressing forward, though, linking what could be good for The Greenbrier with what also would be good for West Virginia.

In late June, he signed a number of bills the Legislature had passed at his urging during a special session. The governor’s office said the package would “provide better opportunities for West Virginians.” Among the measures was House Bill 113, giving additional state tax breaks for investments in “opportunity zones,” like the one that includes The Greenbrier.

This article was originally published by ProPublica. It was produced in partnership with the Charleston Gazette-Mail, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

Jake Zuckerman and Kate Mishkin, of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and Lylla Younes and Alex Mierjeski, of ProPublica, contributed reporting.

A history lesson

Researchers Uncover History of Former W.Va. Coal Community

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Scott's Run miner's children lined up for a meal in the 1930s. In reaction to this photo Scotts Run elders said, "There was a soup line or the blacks and there was a soup line for the whites, and that certainly proves it, how sad." Photo courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Center.

West Virginia University researchers recently completed a year-long project exploring the history of a coal community in Monongalia County, using photos and oral history to create an exhibit.

Scott’s Run is a five-mile area that stretches along the banks of the Monongahela River, about four miles from West Virginia University.

Today less than 2,000 people live there, and the former towns in Scotts Run – such as Osage and Cassville – are all unincorporated.

But, in the early 1900s, the area was booming from the coal industry. Its main economic advantage was its proximity to the river, railroads and coal resources. But, by the 1930s during the Great Depression, like much of the country, Scott’s Run hit hard times.

School children at Osage, a town within Scott’s Run, with their Sunday school teacher in the 1940s. When researchers showed this photo to Scott’s Run elders one said, “As youngsters on Osage Hill we all played together. No difference in color. We didn’t know a difference until we went to school.” Photo courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Center

Consequently, the community banded together, creating a family-like bond that still exists today.

“There’s this community that is a completely different world from what you’ve seen of Morgantown that has this history that’s very much the history of West Virginia,” said Kristina Hash, a professor of social work at WVU.

Hash was one of six researchers on the team that studied Scott’s Run. Other researchers included Catherine Gouge, Lori Hostuttler, Tamba M’bayo, Christine Rittenour and Tyler Redding.

The project was funded in 2018 through a grant from the West Virginia University Humanities Center.

Many photos were taken of the people of Scott’s Run during the Great Depression years, Hash said. Using these photos, she and her team documented stories from West Virginians who were children during the early years of Scott’s Run.

About a dozen of the original residents of Scott’s Run still get together every weekend. Hash said the sense of community is strong.

“People that had a really diverse community that lived in harmony that centered around coal and together faced major tragedy,” she said.

All the research was compiled into a video and an exhibit that has been donated to the Scott’s Run Museum where it will be permanently on display. The museum is open every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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A history lesson

Art Exhibit Explores Appalachia’s Connection to Wales

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Some of the Welsh artwork on display at the Monongalia Arts Center. Photo: Jesse Wright, WVPB

Across the Atlantic Ocean — 3,586 miles away from West Virginia — you will find Wales, which is part of the United Kingdom. The western side of Wales is lined by two channels from the Celtic Sea. And inland is quite mountainous. Within those mountain towns, you will find similar folk culture to Appalachia.

“The nature of the people and the landscape is very similar. Plus, many people from West Wales came over here. So we’ve got those really strong connections,” said Peter Stevenson, a Welsh artist, writer and storyteller.

These strong connections inspired Stevenson to host an art exhibit at the Monongalia Arts Center in Morgantown, an expansive art exhibit dedicated to the Wales-Appalachia connection.

History

Many of Appalachian’s ancestors migrated from Wales to Appalachia. There are other strong historical connections between the two regions. For example, both have a long and complicated history with the coal industry, and both have a strong mountain culture – a culture that includes music, art and storytelling.

Some of the Welsh artwork on display. Much of the artwork Stevenson brought with him on the plane from Wales. Photo: Jesse Wright, WVPB

Stevenson has family who immigrated to West Virginia in the 1960s. So, Stevenson has listened to many Appalachian folktales, and he has found many similarities to Welsh folklore. Similar characters appear in both traditions, like fairies or little people and granny women – older, eccentric women who either create charm or mischief.

Stevenson and Ro Brooks, executive director of the Monongalia Arts Center. Photo: Jesse Wright, WVPB

But the stories differ slightly. Stevenson thinks the Welsh brought over their folklore when they immigrated to Appalachia hundreds of years ago, but the stories changed slightly over time to become more Appalachian.

“Within these stories which appear to be the same they take on something from the landscape and nature of the people in that landscape and they’re subtly different,” he said.

The Exhibit

Figures and drawings of Welsh ‘Granny Women’ that are part of the MAC exhibit. Photo: Jesse Wright, WVPB

Stevenson organized the art exhibit on display in Morgantown to further explore the connections.

The exhibit is one big story that contains many little stories, it is a bit like a fairytale book come to life at the Monongalia Arts Center, featuring Welsh and Appalachian artists.

There are dolls made to look like witches with a black triangle hat, drawings of mermaids in the Monongahela river and a woman who turned into a swan. There are a lot of bright colors and characters that make one’s imagination run wild.

Stevenson is a professional storyteller. When he tells a story, one feels spellbound. He tells the crowd a folk story using a cranky – a storytelling device likely familiar to Appalachians.

A cranky is like a picture book except with drawings all on one long scroll. It is contained within a frame with two handles that move the scroll, and it is typically accompanied by a story.

The Story of Betty

The story Stevenson told at the exhibit opening is about an old granny woman named Betty who lived on the west coast of Wales. She often would gaze out her window toward America.  

“Thousand wrinkles around the eyes, a single yellow tooth wobbling unnervingly in the breeze from her breath and a single gray hair in the middle of her chin,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson turned the cranky as he spoke. The pictures are drawn in heavy black ink. Betty looks like a kind, but mischievous old woman out of a children’s book.

Stevenson explained that Betty could make love potions. She would make them for all the town folk. But sometimes she mixed them up, and in Stevenson’s story, much to the town’s dismay, Betty accidentally made a farm woman and a man of nobility fall in love. But they ended up living happily ever after and having dozens of babies.

A miniature cranky made by Stevenson. Crankies are often used to tell a story. Photo: Jesse Wright, WVPB

Peter turned to the final image on the cranky, and revealed a picture of Betty with a sly smirk pointing to her love potion bottle and a trail of red hearts.

“Old Betty is still there. She’s still there in her little cottage. She’s got even more wrinkles around her eyes, her solitary yellow tooth fell out years ago, but her little gray hair is still there and she twirls it and looks out across the water to America,” Stevenson said. “And thinks to herself, maybe my love potions would work in West Virginia.”

West Virginian Art

The first floor of the exhibit features the Welsh artists and their interpretation of folktales. The second floor is dedicated to West Virginian artists, such as Eddie Spaghetti.

He is based in Morgantown and works in many art mediums, including crankies. One of Spaghetti’s crankies on display is titled ‘Light in the Darkness.’ It is accompanied by a poem that Spaghetti wrote in tiny print underneath the drawings.

“I put a magnifying glass onto it, that magnifying glass is a real attention-getter – you can’t help but to look at stuff,” he says.

Another of the West Virginian artists featured in the exhibit is accomplished sculptor Jamie Lester. Some of his well-known work includes the Don Knotts and Jerry West statues in Morgantown.  

Lester’s piece representing man’s connection to coal. He is one of many West Virginian artists featured in the exhibit. Photo: Jesse Wright, WVPB

Lester’s piece on display in the Wales-Appalachia gallery reflects man’s connection to coal. Something that is a big part of Appalachian and Welsh history. It’s a sculpture of a man’s body merged with a coal operation, and the coal tipple is connected to his head and shoulder.

“He’s being like fed coal, he is coal, coal is in his blood, he’s being force-fed coal,” Lester said. “And his arms are tied behind his back and one of his arms is breaking the structure of the tipple, so you get the feeling he’s being tormented, but there’s the possibility of him breaking away from his tormentor.”

This sculpture and all the many other pieces from Appalachia and Wales are on display at the Monongalia Arts Center in Morgantown. The exhibit will be up through the end of this month, when it will travel to Wales for display.

The second level of the exhibit featuring West Virginian artists. Then entire exhibit tells one big story of the Welsh-Appalachian connection. Photo: Jesse Wright, WVPB

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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A history lesson

Mountain Justice: Appalachian Women Fought for Workers Long Before They Fought for Jobs

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The only women delegates to United Mine Workers Convention in Washington, D.C., January 24, 1938. Left to right: Pearl Kosby, Bridgeport, Conn.; Esther Perelson, Ozone Park, Long Island, N.Y.; and Esther Levin, also of Ozone Park. Library of Congress.

This piece was originally published in Scalawag, which amplifies the voices of activists, artists, and writers reckoning with the South. You can read the original article here.

As historian Jessica Wilkerson carefully turned the pages of a notebook documenting a coal miners’ strike, fragments of dried leaves fluttered out. Sudie Crusenberry, who glued it together, was the wife of a disabled Kentucky miner. She had to reuse her children’s old school scrapbooks to record the work of her “women’s club,” which helped drive the successful 1973 Brookside Mine Strike. “She was layering memories of her children with this dramatic struggle for justice in the coal fields,” said Wilkerson.

The notebook also held newspaper clippings about the strike, the campaign to help miners dying of black lung disease, and the Ku Klux Klan’s attacks on female organizers. Crusenberry pasted a photo of herself next to the lyrics of “Dreadful Memories,” a song about raising hungry, shivering children in the coal fields. Another page featured a photo and quotation from the spitfire labor organizer Mother Jones.

Crusenberry and other miner’s wives inherited a legacy of labor activism from Jones and previous generations of Appalachian women. This tradition is the subject of two recently-published books of history written by women from the region. Wilkerson’s To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice documents how the War on Poverty in Kentucky triggered a period of rising activism among Appalachian women in the 1960s and ’70s. They, in turn, built on the union organizing at the heart of Never Justice, Never Peace: Mother Jones and the Miner Rebellion at Paint and Cabin Creeks, by Ginny Savage Ayers.

Both authors grew up with a generational fascination with Appalachian history.

An Assistant Professor of History and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi, Wilkerson hails from East Tennessee, where her distant cousin helped found the Museum of Appalachia. 

Her grandfather spent most of his career as a union organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, and her grandmother papers she had saved from her own involvement in the labor and Civil Rights work of the Coalition of Labor Union Women.

“That I didn’t learn about his until I was a young woman, despite my grandmother’s deep pride in their involvement in the labor movement, is a testament to the power of conservatism in the region, how it silences and erases certain histories,” Wilkerson said. “It seemed such a relief to my Grandma when she could finally share that history with me.”

Savage co-wrote Never Justice, Never Peace with her late father, Lon Kelly Savage, a journalist and Virginia Tech administrator born in Charleston, West Virginia. His dad told stories of being hired to fight the miners in the Battle of Blair Mountain, the most significant in the West Virginia mine wars. Savage wrote the only popular history of that insurrection. After his death, Ayers decided to finish his research about the earlier mine wars, a forgotten chapter in American history.

Ayers’ book describes a strike that devolved into armed skirmishes between miners and hired “mine guards,” followed by a series of military trials held under martial law. Mother Jones, who would later inspire Sudie Crusenberry, traveled the country publicizing the plight of workers. Her famously foul mouth and rabble-rousing speeches belied her grandmotherly appearance. Jones was among many long held without trial at the whim of the governor, who also hounded the socialist press.

“He sent National Guard troops to physically bash the presses to silence that voice,” Ayers said, noting that attacking the media is a time-honored political tactic. “Today it’s not done physically, but done by casting doubt on the validity of the press.”

One of the main narratives in Never Justice, Never Peace, focuses on how Mother Jones helped the miners and their wives recognize their own power. (A West Virginia example was Willie Fish, a teenager and miners’ wife who smuggled guns and ammunition to strikers under her dress while very pregnant.)

Wilkerson’s book picks up decades later, as Appalachian women in Kentucky sought to reclaim that power. They started as community workers during President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, then expanded into related social justice issues, such as the environmental effects of strip mining.

Wilkerson argues their activism arose from their understanding of how their unpaid caregiving—for children, disabled husbands, and abused wives —was linked to their rights as citizens: the right to affordable child care and health care, clean water, and safe working conditions for raising a family.

Her book’s title was inspired by the words of Bessie Smith Gayheart, an Appalachian woman who led a group of activists during a sit-in at a strip mine: “I was born and raised in east Kentucky and I am going to stay; but to stay here you’re going to have to fight like hell.”

At a time of heightened racial antagonism in the South, white Appalachian women lobbying for welfare reform were still willing to form alliances with urban Black activists and disabled men. This solidarity arose partly from generational experiences in mining camps. Coal companies had historically employed mountain whites, Black workers moving north, and recent European immigrants.  

“Companies felt it was to their advantage to segregate these populations and foster distrust between them, because if they’re not working together, they won’t revolt together,” Ayers said. “This was flawed thinking on their part, because these workers became aware they were being abused. They knew there was strength in banding together.”

Wilkerson agrees that there was a collective memory of those partnerships – but also of lynchings and racial terror. “We often want to focus on one or the other, but the two were happening at once, which is why it was hard for those coalitions to hold,” she said.

Nevertheless, the latter-day female Appalachian activists faced risks for crossing racial lines.

For example, Appalachian community organizer Edith Easterling was called to testify before the Kentucky Un-American Activities Committee during the Red Scare. “Politicians saw it as a way to go after War on Poverty funding,” Wilkerson said. “They’d use the same organization to go after Black activists in cities and the white working class in Eastern Kentucky.”

Easterling, a local woman called to testify before the committee for her anti-poverty work, used the opportunity to strafe corrupt local “politicianers.” 

“I will confess we have done wrong—or I have done wrong,” she told the committee. “I voted for that dirty bunch in that courthouse.” She said they wanted to control all the money in the county and were angry when federal programs benefited community organizations. “If they can’t get it theirself, they don’t want nobody else to have it,” she said.

While some women faced public threats, other threats happened at home. Eula Hall endured years of abuse from her husband—who at various times broke her jaw and stabbed her—as her activism built toward the creation of a community health clinic in Kentucky where she still works. 

“When a woman tried to do anything, she must fight her husband to do it,” Hall told Wilkerson. “If we have a group, women won’t be so scared to try.”

Bessie Lou Cornett, a leader in promoting the Brookside Mine strike, later helped fight plans to build a highway through a Black neighborhood. Her husband would attack her to try to prevent her leaving the house to organize. After their divorce, he gained custody of their son by arguing that she was an unfit mother because of her union activity and alliances with Black people.

Cornett maintained her resolve with the memory of her grandfather suffering of black lung. In the film Harlan County, USA, Cornett says, “I told myself, if I ever get the opportunity to get those coal operators I will. Because I thought, you know, [the company] was the enemy. So when the strike came up, I saw the opportunity, and I jumped right in there.”

Cornett’s friend Crusenberry was targeted by the KKK, which burned a cross in her yard. (Local KKK members tended to be white, anti-union men, who thought both Black workers and women should stay “in their place.”)

While some things have changed in the decades since, Ayers says corporations continue to use their power in ways that harm and manipulate Appalachians. In the coal fields, she says that translates into convincing miners they are under attack from green energy and environmental regulations. Another example is the the 2010 explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine, which took the lives of 29 West Virginia coal miners but resulted in only a misdemeanor conviction for the company CEO.

She also sees examples outside the mining industry. Ayers points to the toxic Kingston coal ash spill in Tennessee, where 40 workers have died and hundreds more were sickened after the cleanup contractor denied them protective gear and tampered with air monitors. 

One of the women featured in To Live Here, You Have to Fight is still doing just that. Sue Ella Kobak, a 1960s War on Poverty Activist-turned-attorney, jumped up at a Knoxville book event in February to passionately argue that Big Pharma is the most serious corporate threat to Appalachia today. Kobak and her husband have been vocally challenging Purdue Pharma since shortly after it began marketing its highly-addictive drug OxyContin in the 1990s. She said her husband, a doctor, now treats about 70 addicts a week.

“My husband and I have been vilified, talked about. We didn’t get shot at like we did in the 1960s, but we have to be very careful,” she told a crowd of about 100 people who had come to hear about women’s activism in Appalachia at the East Tennessee History Center. “The raping (of) Appalachia has not stopped at all. I’m 73 years old… and I’ve never left. And it has not stopped or even slowed down,” Kobak said, her voice breaking.

Although coal is losing dominance, the industries replacing it are still rife with health and environmental hazards, Kobak argued. Streams that once ran black with coal now run black with fracking fluid.

Wilkerson said she’d like to see West Virginia teachers replace miners as the emblem of America’s workers. The statewide teachers’ strike—which inspired others across the nation – was a bipartisan, multiracial coalition with women at its center. It benefited not only teachers but all the state’s public-sector employees, as well as children.

Modern striking teachers owe a debt to women like Crusenberry. After her husband was injured in a mine, her family was forced out of a home the mine owned. Before moving out, she wallpapered the interior with United Mine Workers of America bumper stickers.

“I loved that image,” Wilkerson said. “They’re going to take her house, but not without recognizing who she is and what she stood for.”

S. Heather Duncan is a print and radio reporter and storyteller raised in Appalachia and living in Knoxville, Tennessee. She has won regional, state and national awards for her newspaper coverage of the environment, business, and government, as well as for feature writing. In her free time she enjoys hiking, whaling on the clarinet, and learning the knack of making five-star fried okra, biscuits, and chicken korma (although not necessarily together).

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