(Note: This is one of two stories on this topic produced as part of a collaborative effort between The Ohio Valley ReSource and NPR)
A joint investigation by NPR and the Ohio Valley ReSource finds that billionaire coal operator Jim Justice’s companies owe more than $12 million dollars in county, state, and federal taxes. Justice is running for governor in West Virginia but has debts in five other states.
The investigation also found that companies owned by Justice also owe more than $2 million in delinquent fines for mine safety violations.
Two years ago NPR's Howard Berkes found that Justice was one of many coal mine owners who had ignored safety fines, putting miners at risk.
At the time, Justice promised to pay all of his fines. He didn't. In fact, as Berkes reports, Justice is now the nation’s top delinquent mine owner.
Mine owner Jim Justice wouldn’t talk to us in 2014, but Tom Lusk, his top mining executive, promised Justice would pay, his $2 million in delinquent mine safety penalties… Lusk: "He is an individual that does not run from his obligations. And that’s the case here. He’s made it abundantly clear that there’s no way we’re going to not fully meet and satisfy these obligations."
But since then, the West Virginia billionaire and Democratic candidate for Governor failed to pay more than a million dollars in NEW mine safety penalties, according to federal accounting data. It showed he was the top delinquent, with nearly $3 million in unpaid fines. He’s paid close to $700,000 since. But former federal mine safety regulator Celeste Monforton is still troubled.
Monforton: "For me, when I think of someone like Jim Justice, y’know one of the most powerful and well-recognized figures in the state of West Virginia I don’t think we should forget that the reason that he has those penalties is because there were violations and hazards in his coal mining operations."
Labor Department data analyzed by NPR show that the delinquent Justice mines have injury rates double the national average. They’ve had 3600 violations since they became delinquent, for things like excessive and explosive coal dust, and unprotected mine roofs that could collapse.
Nearly 700 violations are the kind common in deadly accidents and mine disasters and the rate of violations is more than four times the national rate. A spokesman told us Justice wouldn’t comment. But the mine owner addressed our earlier reporting when he announced his Democratic bid for Governor last year.
Justice: "I’m a safety fanatic. I really am. So I’m the last person in the world that’s wanting something to where you would put an employee in a situation that would be unsafe. When it all really boils right down to it we’re taking care of them. We’ll absolutely y’know, take, make sure that every one of them is taken care of."
Now it’s not just mine safety penalties that go unpaid. NPR found more than $12 million in delinquent county, state and federal taxes in public records in six states. His mining companies owe more than $3 million in coal severance taxes In West Virginia alone, according to state tax liens.
And more than $4 million in county taxes in Kentucky, according to county officials, including Knott County executive Zachary Weinberg, who says the missing money is needed. Weinberg: "Y’know you’re talking about maybe a grant writer or to keep the senior citizens’ program whole or to pick trash up, to keep the lights on, to keep the employees with good health insurance."
Knott County filed suit in August and is now getting monthly checks, along with Tazewell County, Virginia, where the sheriff seized Justice mining equipment in March. In April, a news story in West Virginia resulted in $4 million in quick payments. That prompted Justice to say this about himself.
Justice: "Jim Justice did not take an easy way out. Jim Justice has never bankrupted any company. It would have been an easy way. Just shut the doors. Let everybody get stuck. I didn’t do it. I promise you that every single obligation that I ever have will be fulfilled."
Well, NPR confirmed the failure to pay a $10 million pledge to the Cleveland Clinic. He paid just 5 of the $25 million he promised to a Boy Scout reserve in West Virginia.
At the same time, Justice loaned his gubernatorial campaign more than $2.5 million.
Overall, the Justice companies owe more than $15 million in taxes and fines. According to federal data, they produced coal while they were delinquent, worth an estimated $700 million.