All the men had worked for a collection of coal companies owned by Gov. Jim Justice and his family, which had pledged to provide health insurance after the miners retired. Last year, though, the retirees learned that those firms had stopped paying their premiums. And as a result, their coverage had been terminated. Polk skipped doctor appointments.
“I know that waiting on medical treatment can do irreparable harm to my health,” he later said in a legal filing, “but I cannot afford to pay the bills.”
The expenses for the aging retirees, compounded by decades of work in southern West Virginia’s coal mines, were often costly. At one point, Wriston and his wife ended up with a bill for $12,367.76, another court filing said.
“I don’t think it’s fair what they’re doing to someone who worked their whole life,” Wriston’s wife, Tammy, said in an interview.
About 150 retired miners around West Virginia were making a similar discovery. So the United Mine Workers of America, the same miners’ union that had endorsed Justice’s election as governor in 2016, went to court last year and asked a federal judge to force the Justice companies to pay.
Lawyers for Justice’s companies initially opposed the union’s request for such an order, arguing the miners had not followed proper procedures for appealing a denial of health-benefit claims. Then, the companies settled, promising to clear up the matter and ensure benefits were provided.
“We’ve dealt with them a lot over the years, with people’s benefits being on and off,” said Josh West, a UMWA district representative. “That’s just the way the Justices have done business.”
As he runs for reelection, Jim Justice, a billionaire and the state’s richest man, frequently touts his experience as a businessman, saying that his long career in coal and other industries makes him uniquely suited for the role of the state’s chief executive. When he’s been asked about lawsuits over unpaid bills, the governor has emphasized that he and his companies always pay what they owe.
But a ProPublica review found that, over the last three decades, Justice’s constellation of companies has been involved in more than 600 lawsuits spanning more than two dozen states — including many filed by workers, vendors, business partners and government agencies, all alleging they weren’t paid. Often, similar cases were filed in multiple jurisdictions, as lawyers for plaintiffs tried to chase down a Justice company’s assets to settle debts.
Among the plaintiffs: a mining equipment company in Virginia, a farm machinery dealer in South Carolina, a bank in Maryland, an insurance company in New York, state tax collectors in Kentucky, and even lawyers and accountants hired by the Justice companies to represent them. Coal miners working for Justice companies have filed at least a half-dozen suits to collect money they said was due to them when they were laid off without legally required warnings or when their paychecks bounced.
To date, parties have won judgments or forced settlements worth more than $128 million in cases against the Justice empire. That’s significantly higher than what has been previously reported.
Last year, Forbes documented $10 million in payments that courts had ordered Justice companies to make to suppliers, workers and government entities since 2016. The publication also noted a pending $60 million civil case. But ProPublica examined legal records dating back to the start of Justice’s tenure as CEO of his family’s companies, representing the most complete accounting yet of how the corporate empire overseen by the governor often forces those it does business with to sue to get what they are owed.
In multiple cases, plaintiffs had to go back to court to try to collect after either winning a case against a Justice company or settling with the governor’s empire. More than a dozen suits have been filed against Justice companies since Justice took office in January 2017, and several name the governor as a defendant.
“He does not pay his bills. I know that very well,” said Will Brownlow, president of New London Tobacco Market Inc., which last September won a $35 million ruling in what appears to be the largest courtroom loss for Justice’s empire.
Brownlow has been fighting Justice companies in court for more than eight years in a dispute over unpaid royalties on coal that Justice was supposed to — but did not — mine in eastern Kentucky.
The governor’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and Justice, through his private attorney, declined to be interviewed. A representative for Justice’s companies also declined to respond to a detailed list of questions for this story. Justice’s reelection campaign did not respond to an inquiry but instead sent an email blast to supporters, preemptively attacking the story, its author and ProPublica. It dismissed a list of detailed questions as “issues that have been reported on for more than a decade.”
As recently as last month, though, a federal judge found Justice to be personally liable for $6.9 million in damages for unpaid fees for the use of a coal shipping terminal in Newport News, Virginia. Lawyers for Justice and one of his companies had argued that they didn’t owe the fees.
Justice did not respond to a letter sent to his home, but he has spoken publicly about the debt skirmishes, as his political opponents have branded him a billionaire scofflaw.
The governor often blames the recent major economic downturn in the coal industry. While many of the nation’s major producers have filed for bankruptcy protection, though, Justice notes his family hasn’t used that route to try to evade liabilities. Indeed, the vast majority of lawsuits against Justice companies over unpaid debts do involve the coal business. Those have resulted in millions of dollars in damages for missed coal shipments and delinquent royalty payments.
But ProPublica’s review shows that some lawsuits over coal debt date back to the 1990s, well before the downturn of the last decade. Moreover, the debts are hardly limited to coal; they span Justice’s business empire. Tens of thousands for an irrigation system at a farming operation in South Carolina. Hundreds of thousands for flood cleanup work at The Greenbrier resort’s golf courses. Millions for a new helicopter.
A core of Justice’s defense is to blame the Russian conglomerate Mechel, which purchased a large chunk of Justice’s coal holdings in 2009 and then, according to court filings, ran up big bills in disputes with miners, contractors and vendors. The Justice family reacquired those holdings in 2015.
“Along the way, you’d walk the streets and somebody would yell at you, ‘Why don’t you pay your taxes?’” Justice said during an August 2018 press conference. “It was tough, because I knew already that I had paid Russian taxes. Not my taxes, Russian taxes.”
Justice said at the time that there were $30 million in vendor bills owed by Mechel, “some that we had no idea if it was real or not real.” Mechel did not respond to a request for comment.
But few of the major, high-dollar cases in ProPublica’s review were, in fact, related to Mechel. More importantly, legal records show that Justice companies agreed to accept many liabilities in the buyback.
The legal entanglements echo those of Justice’s Republican ally, President Donald Trump, who himself has been sued thousands of times over his business career, often by aggrieved vendors. Like the president, the governor has said that at the start of his term he turned over day-to-day control of his businesses to his adult children. But he still retains an interest in 120 corporate entities and continues to guide his empire.
For some plaintiffs, chasing a state’s top elected official or his companies for payment has proved uncomfortable. Nine months after Justice took office, Citizens Asset Finance sued the governor and two of his companies for more than $2.5 million for defaulting on a helicopter loan.
“I do a lot of financial institution work, and banks want to get paid, certainly, but they do not want to raise public ire,” William Thorsness, a lawyer for the bank, told a federal judge in New York during a June 2018 hearing. “Suing a sitting governor is not something they take joy in.”
Justice Aviation filed a counterclaim, blaming the bank for a delay and lower price when it sold the aircraft. Justice also complained at a press conference about mechanical problems with the helicopter. The parties later settled the case with Justice Aviation agreeing to pay a little more than $2.5 million.
Republican and Democratic candidates for governor have blasted Justice for his business empire’s long roster of debt collection cases. “I know what it’s like to make payroll every week, without a string of lawsuits and unpaid bills,” Woody Thrasher, Justice’s former Commerce Secretary and now a Republican primary opponent, told a local television station in March.
With the June 9 primary election approaching, Justice’s companies have recently moved to settle some major cases.
In early April, his coal operations reached a deal with the U.S. Department of Justice to pay more than $5 million in delinquent mine safety penalties, some of them dating back more than five years. Typically, fines for mine safety violations don’t result in lawsuits, but when Justice’s companies refused to pay the penalties imposed by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the federal government sued. Initially, the Justice companies had sought to have the case dismissed, saying the government wrongly filed it in federal court in Virginia, while the named defendants are incorporated in West Virginia.
“Their position has been and is that they pay what they owe,” said Christopher Pence, a lawyer who handled the mine safety case for Justice’s companies.
“A Bad Image for the Coal Industry”
Jim Justice took over his family’s coal business in 1993, after his father died. Nonpayment suits dogged operations from the start.
That year, two dozen miners alleged they weren’t paid wages and benefits owed to them, and the West Virginia labor department sued Bluestone Coal, the Justice family’s main company, on their behalf. The miners worked for Bluestone contractors, but state officials argued that Bluestone was responsible for paying the workers under state law. Ten of the miners settled their claims, while another 10 went to court and won. Bluestone argued it wasn’t responsible for the payments, but a judge entered a judgment against Bluestone in that matter, for $21,000. The cases of the remaining four miners were tossed by the court.
Three years later, authorities went after Justice’s company with a much more systemic claim: Bluestone had effectively cheated the state’s workers compensation program out of more than $5 million in premiums, state officials alleged. The lawsuit, filed by the state Bureau of Employment Programs, was part of a larger effort to force coal operators to shore up the program, which was hundreds of millions of dollars in the hole.
Like much of the industry, Bluestone used a web of small contracting firms to mine its coal, maintaining that those firms were responsible for paying into the workers compensation system.
But the state argued that Bluestone, like many coal companies, actually controlled its contractors, who had failed to pay millions in premiums. “Bluestone obtained the mining permits and had the right to sell coal that was mined,” the Charleston Gazette reported in September 2000. “In many cases, Bluestone also provided contractors with mining equipment, engineering plans and day-to-day management direction.”
Bluestone denied the claim and fought the lawsuit. And the election of a new business-friendly governor — a former coal executive backed by Justice and other coal operators — provided a temporary reprieve, as the new administration battled with labor unions in an attempt to get the cases dropped. But, in 2001, another candidate ousted the incumbent on a pledge to collect from Bluestone and the rest of the industry.
Mining companies quickly settled, but the deal with the new administration allowed them to avoid millions in accrued interest. Bluestone Coal ultimately paid $5.1 million, escaping $15.7 million in interest.
Justice’s wealth ballooned in 2009 when his family soldthe company to Mechel, a Russian mining and metals firm, for $436 million in cash. The Justice family, however, still maintained unrelated mining properties in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. And the debt problems continued there, with suits over unpaid bills, late coal shipments and missed royalty payments.
The biggest of these cases was filed in 2012, after Justice’s Kentucky Fuel Corp. failed to mine coal at two sites it had leased, costing the coal owners their royalties.
The plaintiff, New London Tobacco Market, sued the mining company in federal court.
But the Justice companies fought the case for eight years, arguing that their contract only required them to mine the coal if it was commercially viable.
According to court records, Kentucky Fuel repeatedly refused to provide court-ordered financial documents, and Jay Justice, the governor’s son, even skipped a scheduled deposition in the case. In September 2019, a federal judge in Kentucky ruled in favor of the plaintiff, ordering Kentucky Fuel to pay more than $35 million — including $17 million in punitive damages.
In an interview, Brownlow, the owner of New London Tobacco, said that, when you add interest, his judgment against the Justice companies is worth more than $50 million. He regrets getting involved in the deal in the first place. “I probably wouldn’t do this again if I had it to do over again and knew what I know now,” he said.
In April, Kentucky Fuel lost a motion to reconsider the judgment. Justice’s company was also ordered to pay more than $1 million in legal fees to the plaintiffs, and his lawyers were sanctioned for filing the motion to reconsider in the first place. Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove admonished Justice’s companies.
“Nothing is fair unless decided in their favor,” he said. “Defendants began this litigation with the same opportunities for discovery and presentation of evidence as any other litigant, but they have squandered these opportunities with poor strategic decisions and contumacious, combative conduct.”
Kentucky Fuel, however, indicated in a court filing that it plans to appeal to a federal circuit court, and one of the company’s lawyers told a local paper the latest court ruling was “a terrible opinion.”
Even in a much-maligned industry, the practices of Justice’s companies have drawn attention. Some operators initially distanced themselves from him as he entered the political arena. Bob Murray, the controversial CEO of Murray Energy Corp., opposed Justice’s bid for governor, in part citing his financial troubles.
“I was aware of about 20 lawsuits against him for not paying his bills,” Murray told a crowd of Ohio County Republicans in 2015, according to a copy of his speech, “a bad image for the coal industry.”
From Russia With Debt
Justice, however, earned goodwill from miners in 2015, when he bought back Bluestone Coal from Mechel. The Russian firm had closed some mines and laid off employees, and now, as a political candidate and mine owner, Justice was pledging to put miners back to work.
The United Mine Workers of America endorsed him in the governor’s race in 2016, and its members appeared in a campaign ad supporting his bid. (Justice ran as a Democrat but switched his party affiliation to Republican during his first year in office.)
“Jim is one of the good coal operators,” union President Cecil Roberts said in the spot, warning voters not to believe negative campaign ads that mentioned unpaid bills. “Jim is keeping miners working while paying off debts run up by a bankrupt Russian company.”
The Russian deal has been an essential part of Justice’s public defense about his companies’ unpaid taxes or overdue bills. He has said repeatedly that Mechel operated his family’s coal holdings poorly, running up bills it didn’t pay and then threatening to walk away. As part of the buyback, Justice agreed to take on at least $140 million in liabilities, according to corporate filings from Mechel. “It takes time to fix everything and do it right,” Justice told Forbes last year, “and along the way you get people who are throwing rocks at you.”
Some of those people are Justice’s own coal miners.
After Justice’s election in 2016, dozens of miners sued coal companies Justice had bought back from Mechel. They alleged that these operations, while owned by the Russian firm, had laid off large numbers of miners — or closed mines altogether — without first issuing the 60-day notice required by federal law. The suits sought back pay and benefits for the workers who lost their jobs without warning.
“They knew the big layoff was coming, they just never warned anybody,” said Robert Boyd, a miner who worked at several of Bluestone’s surface mines for more than five years. Boyd said the abrupt layoffs left miners in a lurch. “We had food bills and house payments,” he said. “It was hard to survive.”
Lawyers for Justice’s companies initially tried to have such cases thrown out, arguing they were filed too late. A federal judge disagreed, and the companies ultimately settled, agreeing to pay the miners. The companies made initial payments, but they fell behind on an agreed-to schedule. The miners had to go back to court to force payment, sometimes more than once. By April 2019, the Justice companies had inked the last of its new deals to catch up on payments. The total for three cases came to more than $3 million, including hundreds of thousands in penalty payments to the miners.
“They waited and waited, and that’s why we got a bigger settlement,” Boyd said.
These cases are among a small number in ProPublica’s review where Justice companies have sought to buck debts incurred from the Mechel deal.
Take, for instance, the case of James River Equipment Virginia LLC. In 2013, the mining equipment company sued Justice Energy Company Inc. over a $150,000 unpaid invoice from when Mechel owned the company. A judge issued a default ruling, and debt collection efforts continued once Justice was again the owner.
But, for three months, no one from Justice Energy or the Justice family showed up for hearings scheduled before a federal magistrate and a district judge. In 2016, a federal judge finally held Justice Energy in contempt and fined the company $1.2 million, payable to the U.S. government.
Justice Energy appealed the fine, arguing that it shouldn’t be penalized for missing hearings and not responding to legal matters that it inherited from Mechel. A federal appeals court, however, disagreed, twice upholding the fine.
Stiffing the Lawyers
While past media reports — including those by NPR and Forbes — have noted two cases where Justice companies have failed to pay even their own lawyers, ProPublica found at least seven additional instances in which Justice companies were sued by law firms that had represented them. Taken together, the string of cases shows a pattern: A Justice company fails to pay a bill and is sued over the debt. Lawyers are hired to fight the collection suit. They often lose or settle, and then have to sue their Justice-related clients to get their fees.
Phelps Dunbar, a regional law firm in the Gulf Coast, represented one of Justice’s companies in a three-year case involving a coal shipping dispute. The firm “engaged in extensive discovery, protracted motion practice,” and briefed multiple federal appeals and “expended considerable time and effort,” it alleged in a debt collection suit. But Justice’s company didn’t pay. A lawsuit in federal court in Louisiana listed unpaid invoices totaling nearly $410,000.
The two sides settled days before a scheduled trial in 2016. Exact terms were not disclosed.
Another law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell, also sued for nonpayment, after it helped settle a dispute that followed the buyback of Bluestone coal holdings from Mechel. The firm said that it was owed a percentage of the holdings in the settlement, but that Justice’s companies had “refused to pay anything.” Under its representation agreement, the law firm first took the case to arbitration, where a panel determined that the Justice companies owed $3.3 million. When the companies still didn’t pay, the firm sought approval of the arbitration ruling from a New York court in May 2016.
A week after the court filing, the Justice companies “promptly paid the full amount” without filing any sort of response with the court, according to a notice of voluntary dismissal filed by the law firm.
Sometimes, it appears that the Justice companies stop paying their lawyers in the middle of a case, a move that leads to delays for everyone involved.
That’s what happened in the case of New London Tobacco, the mining contract dispute that resulted in the $35 million judgment. After a year on the case, Justice company attorney, Billy Shelton, filed a motion to withdraw. He said that he “has been unable to obtain documents and information from his client necessary to properly and adequately prepare and provide a defense.” He also noted that Kentucky Fuel had “failed to pay counsel for recent legal services in this matter.”
Three months later, Shelton’s law firm sued seven Justice companies over $85,000 in unpaid legal fees. When the companies didn’t answer the suit, a local judge approved a default judgment against them. Three years later, Shelton told NPR that the lawsuit was “the result of a misunderstanding” that occurred when the right Justice executive wasn’t aware of the fee dispute.
In all, the Justice companies employed seven different law firms over the course of the New London Tobacco case.
The Money Chase
In court filings and interviews, parties in several nonpayment cases against Justice companies say that they have had to go to extraordinary lengths to collect debts on payments as obligatory as local taxes.
By the summer of 2017, one Justice company owed unpaid property and mining-related taxes to Knott County in Kentucky, records show. The county filed suit against Kentucky Fuel to collect what was owed, plus interest and late fees. Over the course of two years, an $870,000 tax bill had ballooned to nearly $2 million. The levies, officials argued, were desperately needed for, among other things, school funding.
But even after a judge ordered Kentucky Fuel to pay, attorneys for the county resorted to seeking garnishments in order to intercept money being paid to Kentucky Fuel from local mining contractors. After the county collected nearly $150,000 through the garnishments, Kentucky Fuel settled for about $1.6 million, according to county attorney Timothy C. Bates.
“We’re an impoverished area, and it most certainly made it difficult with the several years that they didn’t pay,” said former Judge Executive Zach Weinberg, who was the county’s top elected official at the time. “It was definitely a hurt for the county.”
Even winning a lawsuit against Justice companies or forcing a legal settlement doesn’t always result in prompt payment. Plaintiffs often have to go back to court to enforce settlements. When that fails, they sometimes file their judgments in other jurisdictions where the Justice companies have property or other assets, then put liens on that property or prepare to force a sale.
The case of Monsanto Co. is instructive.
In October 2018, the agrochemical giant said Justice Family Farms hadn’t paid a bill for more than $800,000 of seed.
Court records for the case, filed in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, where Monsanto is based, show that the parties quickly worked out a settlement. Justice Family Farms would make six installment payments.
A year went by, and the company made just one payment, for $25,000, records show. Even that was made two months late. Monsanto lawyers went back to court. U.S. District Judge John A. Ross ruled that Justice Family Farms was in breach of the deal. Not only had the company just paid a fraction of what it owed, he noted, but it had failed to respond to the legal proceedings entirely.
Five months later, when Justice Family Farms still hadn’t paid, lawyers for Monsanto asked Ross to provide them with a certified copy of his judgment, so that they could try to collect the money in Virginia, where the Justice farming company has its primary business office.
Monsanto’s attorney declined to comment, and it’s unclear from court records whether the Justice company ever paid.
A Maryland bank used the same tactic to compel payment in another case, after winning a nearly $1.5 million judgment against a different Justice firm, Justice Farms of North Carolina LLC. The company had defaulted on payments on a year-old series of business loans. The bank sued in late 2017 but payment wasn’t resolved until last year, after the financial institution began filing the judgment in other jurisdictions, chasing down the Justice family for its money.
The approach is not always successful, though, and it can be costly and time consuming for plaintiffs.
In December 2017, an insurance company won a nearly $850,000 judgment in New York against Justice’s Southern Coal Corp., which had failed to pay workers’ compensation and general liability premiums. The insurance company transferred the judgment to West Virginia, where the coal company’s bank accounts and other assets were located.
The West Virginia court ordered federal marshals to investigate, but they found bank accounts empty or closed. The district judge, in turn, appointed a special commissioner in January 2019 to probe Southern Coal’s finances further. The inquiry went on for nearly a year, until the commissioner ordered Jill Justice, the governor’s daughter and a Southern Coal board member, to appear for a deposition. Southern Coal settled the matter this past February, but court records did not make clear how much was paid.
Corporate Shell Game
In recent years, several plaintiffs have argued that Justice, his companies and his family operate what amounts to a complicated corporate shell game, moving money from one part of the business empire to another, all to avoid big debts, costly liabilities, even fines.
Last year, after the appeals court upheld her contempt ruling, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger pressed Justice Energy to pay the $1.2 million fine in the case of James River, the mining equipment company that sued over unpaid invoices.
U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart investigated Justice Energy’s finances, examining records and interviewing corporate officials. He found what he called the shell of a company: Justice Energy doesn’t own a mine or any coal reserves, or even any mining equipment. Miners and supervisors aren’t employed by Justice Energy.
“While Justice Energy Company Inc. may be a corporation, it is, in reality, an alter ego and shell controlled by the Justices through their other entities and has no real separate existence under the law,” Stuart wrote. “I believe that those who control Justice Energy Company Inc. have a legal obligation and the ultimate legal responsibility to make sure that the contempt sanction is paid.”
The federal prosecutor later filed a motion for formal permission to “pierce the corporate veil,” a legal maneuver that would force Justice and his family themselves to pay the fine. Justice’s lawyers never filed a response. Instead, the next day, Justice Energy agreed to a payment plan. (Bluestone Resources, another of Justice’s companies, would pay the fine.)
Now, others are echoing Stuart’s findings as they seek to pull back the curtain on Justice’s business operations.
New London Tobacco, concerned that it wouldn’t be able to collect any eventual judgment in its case against Justice’s Kentucky Fuel, filed a second lawsuit while its first suit played out in court.
Specifically, New London Tobacco alleged that the Justices transferred property and other assets in anticipation of losing the debt collection case. In one instance, the suit says, about $1.8 million from the sale of coal leases was “diverted” by wire transfer to Jay Justice’s personal brokerage account at Goldman Sachs. Citing federal racketeering laws, New London Tobacco alleges that the Justices are “members of an association-in-fact enterprise” — a term originally intended to allow the targeting of organized crime.
“The business strategy,” New London Tobacco said in its lawsuit, “includes incurring debts that they do not intend to pay and using delay and forcing creditors to bring unnecessary litigation, so that the members of the Enterprise can avoid full payment of their debts.”
Another plaintiff, a Canadian steel mill, sued Justice’s Southern Coal Sales Corp. — along with a dozen Justice family companies — as it sought damages over missed coal shipments. The company, Essar Steel Algoma, alleged that Southern Coal was effectively drained by other Justice entities to protect it from litigation. The subsequent financial weakness “rendered it purposefully judgment proof,” Algoma’s lawyers said.
Justice’s attorneys denied the claim, saying that Algoma has “a gross misunderstanding of how affiliate entities operate in the coal industry.”
“Indisputably, it is an owner’s prerogative to infuse capital into his own company or companies to ‘keep them afloat’ and the coal industry, in particular, experiences ups and downs that require such support.”
This month, a federal judge in New York denied a motion by the Justice companies to dismiss the case, rejecting what she called an “everyone is doing it” defense.
Meanwhile, the Justice companies are filing lawsuits of their own.
In March, they sued an equipment supplier they said reneged on an oral settlement to resolve a $9.4 million judgment against one of the family’s firms.
That case was reminiscent of a suit the Justice empire filed last year against the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement over $4.2 million in unpaid strip-mining penalties and fees. Justice’s companies claim that they had a verbal deal to resolve the matter for $250,000. But, they say, OSMRE backed out. And fearing a government collection action, the Justices sued to try to enforce that verbal deal. “We don’t want to have to go to court to get the government to do the right thing and live up to its end of the bargain,” Jay Justice, the governor’s son and CEO of the mining operations, said in a press release, “but we can’t sit back and let the government take advantage of our good faith efforts to resolve this matter.”
Last week, a federal judge in Virginia tossed the Justice companies’ case.