Editorials, Opinion

Do Justices always pay their debts?

Early last week, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against James “Jay” Justice II (Gov. Jim Justice’s son and current CEO of Bluestone Coal Sales Corp.) and 13 of the Justice family’s coal companies for roughly $7.6 million unpaid fines and fees.  

From 2018 to 2022, the Justice family’s coal companies racked up 130 citations from the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement for environmental and safety violations. The SMRE also issued the companies 50 cessation orders (to stop operations until violations are fixed) that the companies ignored. In addition to the fines from those citations, the coal companies also amassed Abandoned Mine Land reclamation fees and audit debt. The fines, fees and interest combined total about $7.6 million. 

Justice immediately lambasted the lawsuit as a politically motivated attack. However, if Justice is as removed from the family businesses as he claims to be, he should be able to easily divert any opponent’s attacks regarding this latest lawsuit. 

Also in response to the filing, Justice said, “You know, my son and my daughter and our companies will always fulfill obligations, every single one, and absolutely at the end of the day have we not done it and done it and done it?”  

Obviously not. 

Justice’s companies were sued in 2019 (during the Trump administration) under similar circumstances. At the time, a $4.7 million lawsuit was filed against 23 of the Justice family’s coal companies for 2,297 citations that stacked up from 2014-19 under the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act. Considering Justice and Trump were close allies, we doubt that was a political attack. Justice certainly didn’t suggest it was back then. 

That lawsuit was settled in 2020 — at which time, Justice said, “We’ll take care of our obligations. We always have and we always will.” — but last month, federal prosecutors had to go back to court because of four consecutive missed settlement payments. 

But Justice’s companies have a long history of not paying their debts, dating to before Justice ever announced his candidacy for governor in 2015. Justice himself was in charge of his companies during many of those lawsuits, only technically handing over leadership to his son Jay in 2017. 

In 2014 — predating Gov. Justice’s political interests — NPR did a whole exposé on how Justice’s delinquent coal mines owed nearly $2 million for almost 4,000 violations accumulated over seven years: “1,300 citations were classified by federal inspectors as reasonably likely to cause injury or illness if uncorrected. More than 500 were the kinds of violations that were common in mine disasters, accidents and deaths. In 2016, NPR revisited Justice’s coal companies (still under his control at the time) and found they had wracked up an additional $1.38 million in fees and fines in safety penalties. 

This is all just what Justice, his family and their companies owe the government. It doesn’t include the tens of millions of dollars Justice and his companies have been sued for by vendors, competitors, lawyers and banks for unpaid debts dating back to at least 2013 — not to mention the unpaid settlements (not just to the government, but to vendors) that drag them back to court.  

The federal government will collect what it is due. Period. There is no political motivation behind the current $7.6 million lawsuit — and renewed $4.7 million lawsuit — as evidenced by the fact the Justice family’s mines faced very similar lawsuits prior to Justice’s governorship and during the Trump administration. This is just what happens when one refuses to pay one’s bills. 

So Justice’s claim this is a political hit job by the Biden administration holds about as much water as his attestation his family always pays its debts.