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Governor says he doesn’t know details of tax liens

Two months ago, the state tax department overseen by Gov. Jim Justice’s administration filed seven liens for unpaid sales taxes amounting to $3.5 million owed by The Greenbrier Hotel Corp., which is owned by Justice’s family.

Merchants collect sales taxes from customers but that’s never their money. It’s the customer’s money flowing to the government with the merchant in a middle role to pass those collections — or remit them — on to the tax official.

Asked Wednesday what is causing the holdup in payment, whether the state should impose stricter penalties such as suspending the hotel’s liquor license and whether the tax money could be used for state initiatives that the administration supports, Justice said he doesn’t know what’s going on.

“To be perfectly honest, maybe I should check,” Justice said in response to a MetroNews question. “I don’t know the details. I really don’t.

“And really and truly, I can tell you that if you’ll just go back and look at the track record, we preoccupy ourselves with what’s going on within Justice’s family’s businesses — but yet at the end of the day things always get paid, don’t they? Absolutely things will always get paid. And there’s not going to be an obligation that we’re going to leave hanging. We’re not going to do that.”

The amounts due to the state built up over a period of months from last July to November.

The State of West Virginia Tax Department’s compliance division filed the liens Feb. 5.

Justice gave a similar, but less expansive, answer when he was asked about the liens during a March 20 briefing.

“If that be the case, without any question the owner of The Greenbrier should pay the taxes,” Justice said three weeks ago.

“I really don’t know anything about this one at all. This one I really don’t know a thing in the world about it. Brand-new news to me. But I’ll check it out.”

A tax lien is a legal claim against the assets of a person or business who fails to pay taxes owed. After all those months, The Greenbrier would have gotten warnings before the liens were filed.

Vendors such as The Greenbrier Hotel are supposed to impose sales taxes at the time of purchase. West Virginia sales taxes are required to be filed and remitted monthly, quarterly, or annually, depending on an assigned filing frequency.

Greenbrier County’s online portal shows the resort also owes about $2.3 million in property taxes that came due March 31. The Real WV, which covers news in that area, first reported that those county property taxes include:

  • Personal property taxes owed to Greenbrier County for vehicles, due March 31: $256,732.18
  • Real estate taxes owed to Greenbrier County for the main hotel property of 220+ acres, due March 31: $1,432,999.87
  • Real estate taxes owed to Greenbrier County for the golf courses and medical facilities, due March 31: $372,127.96

Justice, who is running for U.S. Senate, made his initial political reputation as a “business guy” who can “buzz the numbers.”

Justice gained goodwill and steps toward statewide name recognition when he bought The Greenbrier out of bankruptcy in spring 2009. It has continued to be a financial and political asset. Last month, congressional Republicans gathered at the resort in White Sulphur Springs for their retreat.

Over the years, Justice has said he’s focusing on the affairs of the state and that he has turned over management of hospitality operations to his daughter, Jill, and coal operations to his son, Jay.

In 2017, shortly after he took office, Justice signed a letter to state employees saying progress on placing family-owned assets into a blind trust was hindered by the complexity of financial organizations.

“I don’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. Even the slightest whiff of a conflict won’t fly with me,” he wrote in that letter.

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

Wednesday, Justice said he would rely on others to ensure The Greenbrier remits state sales taxes.

“I really — and you may think, ‘Well, how in the world, how in the world could Jim Justice not check on this stuff?’ — because Jim Justice is not here to be checking on what’s going on with my businesses. I’ve got people that are running that,” he said.

“What Jim Justice is here to do is take care of the people of the great state of West Virginia, and that’s what I do. Really and truly, I haven’t checked on it because I know it’ll be paid. I mean, it’s as simple as just that. Whenever they’ve got the money or maybe the obligation’s not even due, I don’t know. I don’t know, but it’ll be paid.”