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Companies owned by this billionaire GOP governor received up to $24 million in bailout loans

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Companies owned by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and his family received up to $24 million from one of the federal government’s key coronavirus economic relief programs, according to data made public Monday.

At least six companies from Justice’s empire showed up on the list of Paycheck Protection Program aid recipients released by the Small Business Administration.

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The Greenbrier Hotel Corporation, Justice’s firm that owns and operates the iconic luxury resort, received a loan of between $5 million and $10 million.

That made it one of only nine companies in West Virginia to receive a loan of that size. Treasury Department officials did not specify the exact amount of the loans, and made public only the identities of companies that received more than $150,000.

In all, Justice companies received between $11.2 million and $24.4 million in PPP money. The Greenbrier Sporting Club, a Justice company that runs an upscale residential development adjacent to the hotel, received between $1 million and $2 million.

Blackstone Energy LTD and Bluestone Coke LLC, two coal companies owned by Justice’s family, each received $2 million to $5 million. Ranger Fuel Coal Corp. received $1 million to $2 million. Justice Energy Company Inc. received $150,000 to $350,000.

Justice’s companies received PPP money from a mixture of small local banks and regional financial institutions. Previous reporting has shown banks were favoring their existing, regular customers when processing PPP applications.

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Justice is ranked by Forbes as a billionaire and West Virginia’s richest man. He owns a vast array of businesses, including coal mines, resort hotels and agricultural interests, many of them regulated by the state agencies he now runs.

The Justice business empire has also been sued dozens of times for not paying bills. A ProPublica investigation found more than $128 million in judgments and settlements in such cases.

In the data released Monday, The Greenbrier listed “0” in a column about the number of jobs that would be retained on account of the loan. Under the PPP, loans don’t have to be repaid if businesses follow key parts of the program, mostly using a certain percentage of the money — originally 75 percent, but reduced to 60 percent — for payroll through Dec. 31.

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“Under the guise of helping mom and pop shops on Main Street, large companies got millions of dollars of government money, represented as loans, but much of it will never be repaid,” said Aaron Klein, an economist at the Brookings Institution who has been following the PPP.

During a COVID-19 media briefing last week, Justice acknowledged that his businesses likely received PPP aid, though he said he didn’t know how much. Like President Donald Trump, Justice said when he took office that he would turn over the management of his companies to those adult children. But, as ProPublica reported last year, Justice continues to guide his business empire.

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On Monday, when asked about the newly released data, Justice again said he wasn’t sure of the amounts. But the governor added, “I encouraged all businesses in our state to try to seek anything and everything that they could possibly seek from the federal government in regards to loans.”

Justice said he believes West Virginia businesses have received nearly $2 billion from the PPP program, adding, “And I welcome every dollar of it.”

The new federal data shows that businesses owned by two of Justice’s recent political rivals also received PPP loans.

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The Thrasher Group Inc., an engineering firm, received $5 million to $10 million. It is owned by Woody Thrasher, who unsuccessfully challenged Justice in the Republican primary this year. The government data said the loan helped retain 441 jobs.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Salango’s law firm, Preston & Salango, received $150,000 to $350,000. On Monday, Salango said the loan — he said the exact amount was $183,500 — helped his firm avoid laying off any employees or cutting their salaries or benefits. The federal data said the loan to the firm retained 10 employees.

In addition to The Greenbrier, which listed zero jobs retained, two other Justice companies left the field blank. The data for three of Justice’s other companies listed a total of 406 jobs retained.

The Greenbrier and related entities employ about 1,600 people, according to court records. In related court filings, lawyers for The Greenbrier have said the resort had already been pushed to “near financial insolvency” because of a devastating flood in 2016.

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The resort suffered additional losses when it was closed for two months because of COVID-19, and West Virginia’s coal industry has been battered by the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic.

Though the program has been criticized for some of the loan recipients, particularly large, publicly traded companies, over all economists praise the PPP for having gotten billions to companies out relatively quickly, amid the sudden economic shock brought on by the pandemic.

Generally, the PPP loans are meant for small businesses, or those with fewer than 500 employees. As of 2018, there were more than 114,000 such businesses in West Virginia. The data made public with business names listed 2,300 loans to West Virginia businesses. The government also released a list, without company names, of another 15,000 West Virginia businesses that received loans of less than $150,000.

But, there is an exemption to that size limit for businesses in the “accommodations and food services” sector.

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Through their attorneys, Justice company representatives have not responded to ProPublica requests for more detailed comments about the PPP loans.

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