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Lawmakers Call for Ethics Reform to Deal With Billionaire Resort-Owning Governor



Gov. Jim Justice, R. W.Va., delivers his annual State of the State speech on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Charleston, W.Va. Photo: AP Photo/Tyler Evert

West Virginia legislators want Gov. Jim Justice to put The Greenbrier in a blind trust after a Charleston Gazette-Mail and ProPublica investigation. But the governor dismisses the report as “garbage.”

West Virginia lawmakers are calling for a thorough reexamination of the state’s ethics rules following a Charleston Gazette-Mail and ProPublica investigation of the conflicts of interest created by Gov. Jim Justice’s ownership of The Greenbrier resort.

One central proposal, from state Sen. William Ihlenfeld, would make West Virginia the first state to mandate that governors place all of their assets into a blind trust, something Justice, the wealthiest man in the state, has refused to do. Under such an arrangement, business holdings are placed under the control of an independent manager, shielding the public official from at least the appearance of a conflict.

Justice, a billionaire, has faced questions about how his vast business empire intersects with his job running the state, raising stark similarities to the ethical entanglements of President Donald Trump.

The Gazette-Mail and ProPublica found that, despite what the Justice administration called a “moratorium” on state spending at The Greenbrier, government agencies paid for more than $106,000 in meals and lodging at the luxury resort since Justice became governor. State officials have also sought — and won — special permission to attend conferences at the hotel and to feature the iconic property in a state advertising campaign.

“He appears to be using public office for private gain,” said Ihlenfeld, a Democrat and a former U.S. attorney in northern West Virginia. “I think the law can be beefed up to prevent this kind of thing.”

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, a Republican from Jackson County, said that lawmakers would want to look closely at how Justice’s businesses interact with state government, including examining state agency spending at The Greenbrier. In addition to the resort, the governor listed more than 100 corporate entities on his most recent financial disclosure form. Many, from coal mining to farming to gambling, are regulated by the state.

“There is a growing sense of concern about those occurrences and circumstances surrounding the governor’s business affairs,” Carmichael said Tuesday afternoon. “We need to take a more broad approach to look at that.”

Justice has denied that his business ownership has created any obstacles to his ability to run state government and is touting that experience as an asset as he campaigns for reelection. During a public appearance on Tuesday at the Capitol in Charleston, the Republican governor dismissed the investigative report, likening it to tabloid-style journalism.

“I think the Charleston Gazette has become the Charleston Enquirer,” the governor said, in an apparent reference to the National Enquirer. “That’s the best I can tell you.”

He added: “They’re a waste of time. They make no news. All they do is throw garbage.”

While Justice turned over day-to-day operations of his companies to his adult children before taking office, he continues to hold ownership, profiting from state business and trade groups that lobby his administration.

At The Greenbrier, the potential for conflicts of interest was clear from the beginning. After winning the 2016 general election, Justice decided to hold his inaugural ball not in Charleston, as has been customary, but at his own resort. More than $1 million, raised from Statehouse lobbyists, industry leaders and special interest groups, flowed to The Greenbrier for inaugural expenses.

Julie Archer, coordinator of West Virginia Citizens for Clean Elections, said changes are needed in the state’s campaign finance rules to prevent that kind of windfall, but “that would just be touching the tip of the iceberg with this administration.”

“The similarities between Justice and Trump in this regard are astounding,” Archer said.

The governor’s office did not respond to multiple interview requests from the Gazette-Mail and ProPublica. A spokesman for the Justice companies has said the governor “has every right to have business interests as governor and he will continue to demonstrate great sensitivity to ethical considerations.”

Last week’s article by the Gazette-Mail and ProPublica detailed specific ways in which Justice has used his public position to benefit his private business.

For example, Justice had urged officials in Greenbrier County, where the hotel is a major employer, to earmark local tax dollars for improvement projects at the luxury resort, including a ski area.

The news organizations also reported that he chose 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.

That news prompted state Delegate Shawn Fluharty, a Democrat from the state’s northern panhandle, to tweet: “The average WV can’t afford to even stay there and our own Governor wants to designate it as a poverty area so he can profit. He’s a walking opportunity zone. For himself.”

To be sure, local officials applied for the program to help the area recover after devastating floods in 2016. But tax experts say the designation could also benefit Justice and his resort.

Fluharty said he would introduce a House version of Ihlenfeld’s proposal to require governors to use blind trusts. “I think it’s something that should garner bipartisan support,” he said. “Some of the Republicans believe the governor is harming his own party.”

Currently, no state requires public officials to use a blind trust while they serve, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But in West Virginia and other states, wealthy governors have historically taken that step to avoid the appearance of ethical conflicts.

Assets are transferred into an entity that is controlled by a trustee. That trustee may sell or transfer interests without knowledge of the public official, making them “blind” to the effects their official actions might have on their own financial interests.

After initially promising that he would follow suit, Justice abandoned his plan to place The Greenbrier in such a trust.

A spokesman for Justice’s companies has said it would be pointless, because the governor would still own his holdings and know that he owned them. Ihlenfeld said that he would consider including language in his bill to require governors to sell their businesses if doing so was needed to eliminate conflicts of interest. “I think that’s reasonable,” he said.

Justice’s ownership has prompted federal attention. In March, criminal investigators with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section issued a subpoena to the state Commerce Department, seeking documents about the administration’s dealings with, among other things, the resort’s professional golf tournament.

Prior to Justice’s gubernatorial run, the tournament benefited from more than $10 million in state sponsorship money, but Justice stopped that arrangement in 2016 to avoid political criticism. His administration briefly flirted with reviving the funding, but the governor blocked the effort after it was made public in local news reports.

Last week, on the same day the Gazette-Mail and ProPublica article was published, the tournament found new support. One of Justice’s coal companies, Bluestone Resources Inc., announced an “incredible donation” of 30,000 tickets next month for the public to attend the event, which has been rebranded from “The Greenbrier Classic” to “A Military Tribute at the Greenbrier.”

A news release quoted the governor’s son, Bluestone Resources CEO Jay Justice, saying the company was “thrilled” to make the donation for an event to honor veterans and first responders. The governor’s daughter, Greenbrier Hotel Corp. President Dr. Jill Justice, was quoted too. She said the resort “couldn’t be more appreciative of this generous donation.”

Phil Kabler of the Charleston Gazette-Mail contributed reporting.

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.

Political discourse

How Grassroots Funds Are Ensuring Abortion Access Despite Bans



In this March 14, 2019 file photograph, a Planned Parenthood supporter hosts an abortion rights button on her hat during a rally on the steps of the Capitol in Jackson, Miss. On Tuesday, March 19, 2019, Mississippi senators passed the final version of a bill that would ban most abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, about six weeks into pregnancy. Photo: Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo, File

Nearly every day, a cohort of reproductive justice volunteers at small grassroots funds across the Southeast connect with each other via encrypted chat. They talk strategy, discuss the latest abortion news—and sometimes share a cat meme, a form of self-care.

They also occasionally share an ask on behalf of a client: “I need $100 … Do you have it?” The money might be for transportation to help get a client to an abortion clinic across the state or across state lines.

Or another request might be “I am overwhelmed—can I shift my calls to you today?” says Laurie Bertram Roberts, who runs the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund in Jackson, Mississippi.

Across conservative states and in cities such as Jackson, home of the state’s only abortion clinic, or in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, grassroots organizations like Roberts’ are working nonstop to support reproductive justice. Funding cuts and increasingly restrictive legislation have transformed large swaths of the Southeast into abortion deserts. And low-income women increasingly depend on these groups to access abortions.

The recent surge in new laws is leaving many women with few options.

“It’s not just about taking away access from one state,” Roberts says. “It’s about making sure we have nowhere to go.”

States like Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, and Georgia have been a gathering storm around abortion access—and what many believe is the inevitable showdown before the U.S. Supreme Court over the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion a constitutional right. Conservatives hold a 5-4 majority on the court.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey this week signed perhaps the most restrictive abortion measure to date, banning the procedure in almost all cases, including for incest and rape, and making an allowance only for cases where a woman’s health is at “serious” risk. Under the law, doctors who perform abortions can be charged with felonies and sentenced to up to 99 years in prison.

It’s the latest in a series of so-called “heartbeat bills” passed by Republican-controlled legislatures in six other states, including Mississippi. With limited exceptions, the measures outlaw abortions after a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat, usually after six weeks, a point before most women even know they are pregnant.

So far this year, 28 state legislatures have proposed abortion bans, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America. Several have passed so-called “trigger laws,” which would make abortion illegal if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

The ACLU has said such bans are blatantly unconstitutional and has sued to block Ohio’s heartbeat bill from taking effect in July. It has already blocked the law in Kentucky and vowed to challenge the Alabama and Georgia measures. A challenge to Mississippi’s law is pending.

Reproductive justice advocates and their allies see these cases as real-life Handmaid’s Tale scenarios. They have been raging on social media and scrambling for ways to helpwomen in need.

Amanda Reyes, executive director of Yellowhammer Fund in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, said her office on Wednesday fielded so many frantic calls from scared, confused women that she pinned a message to its Twitter account: “YOU CAN STILL GET AN ABORTION IN ALABAMA!”

“This happens every time there’s a restriction,” says Reyes, whose organization, like Roberts’ Mississippi fund, also helps low-income women get to and pay for abortions.

She said one call was from a woman who wanted to know if she could “self-manage” an abortion based on the supplies she had on hand.

“This is the danger of these kinds of things.”

Both Yellowhammer and Robert’s Mississippi Fund are part of the National Network of Abortion Funds, which provides funding to help remove the financial and logistical barriers to abortion access. It supports dozens of funds across the country, including across the Southeast. It is one of several reproductive rights organizations across the country working to help make abortion more accessible, especially for lower-income women.

“We see people facing the most extreme financial and social barriers to getting an abortion,” Reyes says. People sometimes roll their eyes when they hear about a typical case: “a minor who is disabled and her parents who are poor and undocumented. That is normal for us. That’s what we get every day.”

Yellowhammer volunteers started out as clinic escorts, but Reyes said she always had the idea of starting an abortion fund. “Then Trump happened,” she says. And the clinic protestor rhetoric he espoused, unheard of at that level before then, created more of an urgency.

She funded the first abortion in January 2018, and more than 300 abortions last year. She expects to do 1,000 this year.

“You can hear the fear in people’s voices when they call us—nervous and scared. They are talking to complete strangers” about intimate details of their lives.

“We tell them, ‘We’ve got your back” … And you can literally hear a huge sigh of relief.”

In Mississippi, Roberts, who was raised religious and held anti-abortion beliefs until her own personal experience changed her, operates under the motto “by any means necessary.”

She helps clients pay for abortions but also for things like transportation and child care, or for airfare, hotels, and food when they need to travel away from home. Clients are assigned abortion doulas, who might accompany them or be available and on call.

She recalls one client who at 25 weeks pregnant flew—for the first time—out of state for an abortion. “We were literally on call the entire time she was” in Colorado, she says. And Roberts cultivated a contact on the ground there to help her.

Roberts embraces a more holistic approach by also offering services to women who are pregnant and parenting. For example, one client whose abortion she funded a few years ago is now getting help while she’s pregnant.

People who want to help, she says, “need to think about what they are willing to do. What’s your threshold for resistance?”

Beyond Planned Parenthood and NARAL fighting to protect reproductive rights in many parts of the U.S., there are organizations seeking to make abortion more accessible, especially for lower-income women.

Here are some located across the Southeast:

Access Reproductive Care Southeast, ARC, is a volunteer organization in 12 Southeastern states that help people access reproductive care.

National Network of Abortion Funds is a network of over 80 funds that helps lower-income individuals access abortion care.

Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund is volunteer-run group that helps people access abortion in Mississippi.

The Yellowhammer Fund is based in Alabama and provides funding for abortions as well as help with other obstacles, such as travel and lodging.

Lornet Turnbull is an editor for YES! Magazine, a Seattle-based freelance writer, and a regional anchor for the Washington Post. Reach her at Follow her on Twitter @TurnbullL

This article was originally published by Yes! Magazine.

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Election Watch

Patrick Morrisey cherry-picks Joe Manchin’s votes on Trump Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch



Fresh off a primary victory in West Virginia’s U.S. Senate contest, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey took a shot at his opponent in the general election in a radio interview with Breitbart, saying Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin too often stands against President Donald Trump.

Referring to Trump’s appointee to the Supreme Court, Morrisey said, “If Joe Manchin had his way, Judge (Neil) Gorsuch never would have been able to get a vote” in the Senate.

Morrisey went on to say, “Whether we’re talking judicial picks, whether we’re talking Trump tax cuts, whether we’re talking unwillingness to change the failed Obamacare … Joe Manchin has not stood with President Trump.”

Manchin’s support for Trump (or lack thereof) is likely to be a major campaign wedge for Morrisey, since Trump is more popular in West Virginia than any other state, according to state-by-state approval ratings released by Gallup in January 2018.

Morrisey is right that Manchin voted against the tax bill supported by Trump and most Republicans. But he isn’t really right about Manchin’s position on Gorsuch.

Here, we’ll look at Manchin’s actions on the Gorsuch nominations; we looked at his positions on Obamacare in a separate fact-check.

Bottom line: When it counted, Manchin voted with Republicans to advance Gorsuch’s nomination.

The Gorsuch confirmation

Morrisey’s camp pointed to three votes on April 6, 2017, during the back-and-forth over Gorsuch when Manchin voted with most Democrats.

In two cases, Manchin voted in favor of efforts by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to adjourn before voting on the Gorsuch nomination or to postpone it. (Both failed along party lines.)

In the third vote, Manchin voted not to invoke the “nuclear option,” which is a procedural move to lower the number of votes required to advance to a final vote from 60 to a simple majority. In this case, too, Manchin voted with all Democrats and against all Republicans.

However, citing only these three votes paints a misleading picture of Manchin’s actions. In the most important votes for securing Gorsuch a floor vote, Manchin sided with Gorsuch and Republicans — and he’d telegraphed it.

Before the final showdown began, Manchin on March 27, 2017, became the first Democratic senator to publicly break with others in his party and say he’d side with Republicans by committing to vote in favor of proceeding to Gorsuch’s nomination.

By announcing his intention to support a vote for Gorsuch a full 10 days before the final action, he sent a signal to other Democrats who still might have been deciding on what to do.

And Manchin stuck to his word: On April 6, Manchin was one of only four Democrats to vote to invoke cloture and proceed to a final vote on Gorsuch’s nomination.

After Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., successfully invoked the “nuclear option,” the Senate once again voted on cloture, this time needing only a simple majority. Once again, Manchin voted to proceed to Gorsuch’s nomination on April 6, this time becoming one of only three Democrats to side with every Republican on the vote.

Finally, on the actual vote on Gorsuch’s nomination on April 7, Manchin voted in favor, once again making him one of just three Democrats to back Gorsuch in the final vote.

Senate specialist Gregory Koger of the University of Miami said Manchin has the better argument than Morrisey in this case.

“Ordinarily I would place real weight on procedural votes, such as adjournment and on the nuclear option precedent,” he said, “but I think there were extenuating circumstances, at least on the precedent vote, and the early public support for Gorsuch more than compensates for these procedural votes.”

Our ruling

Morrisey said, “If Joe Manchin had his way, Judge Gorsuch never would have been able to get a vote.”

Manchin did side with Democrats on certain procedural votes during the showdown over Gorsuch. But he broadcast his support for a vote on Gorsuch early enough to persuade fence-sitters, and on the main votes, he broke ranks with his party, siding with Republicans to secure Gorsuch a vote and ultimately confirm him to the court.

We rate the statement Mostly False.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Election Watch

Patrick Morrisey says Joe Manchin won’t budge on Obamacare, ignoring bipartisan efforts



As the general election for the seat held by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., heated up, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey took a shot in a radio interview with Breitbart, saying Manchin too often stands against President Donald Trump, who remains popular in the state.

Referring to Trump’s appointee to the Supreme Court, Morrisey said, “If Joe Manchin had his way, Judge (Neil) Gorsuch never would have been able to get a vote” in the Senate.

Morrisey went on to say, “Whether we’re talking judicial picks, whether we’re talking Trump tax cuts, whether we’re talking unwillingness to change the failed Obamacare … Joe Manchin has not stood with President Trump.”

Morrisey is right that Manchin voted against the tax bill supported by Trump and most Republicans. But he isn’t really right about Manchin’s positions on Gorsuch and modifying Obamacare, officially known as the Affordable Care Act.

We’ll look at the Obamacare assertion here; we separately fact-checked the part about Gorsuch in another item.

Bottom line: Despite voting against the major Obamacare overhaul that most Republicans supported, Manchin has been open to making incremental changes to the law.

Changing Obamacare

Manchin voted against the major Obamacare overhauls that most Republicans supported in 2017.

When the Senate took up three varieties of bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Manchin voted against all three bills, siding with all other Democrats. All three failed, due to Republican defections.

However, it is wrong to say that Manchin was unwilling to “change” the Affordable Care Act.

In January 2017, Manchin told West Virginia’s MetroNews radio that he had told Republican leaders that he’s “happy to sit down with you to see if we can find a pathway forward” on Obamacare, Politico reported.

Six months later, Manchin repeated that sentiment, telling MetroNews’ Talkline that he was still willing to work toward fixes for Obamacare, even as he objected to the Republican plan for a thorough overhaul.

“If they want to say, ‘Okay, Joe, we can’t pass this thing. Will you sit down and work with us?’ I’m there tonight with them and I’ll get six or seven or eight other very like-minded Democrats,” Manchin said.

Manchin then organized a bipartisan health care policy meeting.

Perhaps most important, Manchin was one of 24 original supporters — 12 Democrats and 12 Republicans — of a bill written by Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., that was touted as a way to fix rather than scuttle Obamacare. The measure would have granted flexibility for states to allow a wider variety of insurance policies while temporarily continuing certain Obamacare payments that were at risk under a repeal. (It remains pending.)

Manchin also expressed public support for efforts by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., to modify Obamacare short of repeal, which crystallized as S. 1835, which would allow states to apply for funding for a reinsurance program or high-risk pool program.

The Morrisey camp pointed to several votes, including a number of Republican attempts to either repeal Obamacare entirely or make sweeping changes to it. But Morrisey’s use of the word “change” suggests something more measured than those bills offered, so we won’t consider them as evidence of Morrisey’s claim.

Of the other votes Morrisey’s campaign cited, three concerned one narrow provision of the law: the “Cadillac” tax on high-cost health care plans. This provision has been controversial ever since the passage of the law, and the effective date has regularly been pushed back by Congress.

Manchin declined to push back the effective date on at least three occasions, sometimes alongside Republicans. On one such vote in December 2015, Manchin was joined by six other Democrats and three Republicans. On another vote that same month, Manchin was joined by 26 Republicans and six other Democrats or Democratic-aligned Independents. The third vote, in July 2017, was largely along party lines.

Morrisey’s campaign mentioned other Obamacare-related votes on taxes, including a 2013 amendment to repeal Obamacare tax increases that hit “middle-income Americans.” These included the tax penalty for not purchasing health insurance, the “Cadillac” tax, expense deductions and penalties for withdrawing funds from health savings accounts. This amendment failed on a party-line vote.

These comprise the strongest piece of evidence for Morrisey’s position, but they mostly involve relatively narrow tax provisions affecting how the law is funded.

It’s worth noting that Manchin has also pursued his own efforts to tweak the bill narrowly, such as exempting volunteer first responders from the tax for not having health insurance; to delay the individual mandate penalty; and to redefine who counts as a full-time employee under the law.

Our ruling

Morrisey said Manchin displayed an “unwillingness to change the failed Obamacare.”

Manchin did oppose the various Republican-led repeal efforts, but he has worked actively to promote incremental changes to Obamacare — not only rhetorically but also by backing bipartisan bills intended as efforts to modify Obamacare without scuttling it.

We rate the statement Half True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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