West Vir­ginia can­di­date for gov­er­nor owes millions in taxes

Jamaica Gleaner - - INTERNATIONAL NEWS -

HIND­MAN, Ken­tucky. (AP): JIM JUS­TICE, a coal billionaire run­ning for West Vir­ginia gov­er­nor, owes millions in back taxes to some of Ap­palachia’s most im­pov­er­ished coun­ties, in­clud­ing one in Ken­tucky that is strug­gling to pay the debt on a new recre­ation cen­tre and has turned the lights off in its parks and re­duced hot meals for se­nior cit­i­zens.

Many of these coun­ties have been dev­as­tated by the col­lapse of the coal in­dus­try over the past few years, and their fi­nan­cial strug­gles are not all Jus­tice’s fault. But county of­fi­cials say things would be a lot eas­ier if he paid up.

“It’s just ab­surd that a billionaire wouldn’t pay his taxes,” fel­low Demo­crat Zach Wein­berg, the top elected of­fi­cial in Ken­tucky’s Knott County, said as he thumbed through a folder of Jus­tice’s debts.

Jus­tice, who is lead­ing in the polls, makes no apolo­gies for the debt owed by some of his coal com­pa­nies, say­ing he is do­ing ev­ery­thing he can to keep his busi­nesses run­ning and work­ers em­ployed while other com­pa­nies go un­der.

UN­PAID TAX BILLS

One of the big­gest chunks of money owed is in Knott County, where Jus­tice has un­paid taxes of $2.3 mil­lion dat­ing to tax year 2014. That’s a sub­stan­tial hole, given the county government’s $10-mil­lion bud­get and its sep­a­rate $2-mil­lion school bud­get.

Jus­tice has other un­paid tax bills scat­tered across the hills and hol­lows of eastern Ken­tucky: $1.2 mil­lion in Pike County, $500,000 in Floyd County, $228,300 in Magof­fin County and $167,600 in Har­lan County, ac­cord­ing to county of­fi­cials.

He also has millions in West Vir­ginia state tax liens against his com­pa­nies. Be­cause of pri­vacy laws, the state won’t say whether he is pay­ing them back.

The As­so­ci­ated Press has re­ported pre­vi­ously on Jus­tice’s debts to coal sup­pli­ers and con­trac­tors, and a re­cent Na­tional Public Ra­dio re­port com­piled a list of Jus­tice com­pany debts, in­clud­ing back taxes and mine-safety fines to­talling $15 mil­lion.

At the same time, Jus­tice — the rich­est man in West Vir­ginia, with a for­tune es­ti­mated at $1.56 bil­lion by Forbes mag­a­zine and a pro­fu­sion of coal and agri­cul­tural in­ter­ests — has spent al­most $2.6 mil­lion of his own money on his cam­paign.

His op­po­nent, Repub­li­can Bill Cole, has made an is­sue of Jus­tice’s bills, say­ing the busi­ness­man is putting coun­ties at risk. “They don’t need the money in a year or two years from now,” Cole said dur­ing a re­cent de­bate. “They need it right now.”

BAR­RELS OF MONEY

In his de­fence, Jus­tice cites the down­turn in the coal in­dus­try and the com­plex­ity of the 102 busi­nesses he is jug­gling. He doesn’t have “bar­rels of money” sit­ting around, he said, and his com­pa­nies have paid over $70 mil­lion in taxes an­nu­ally over the last four years.

Jus­tice has cast his ef­forts to keep his mines open in heroic terms.

“I didn’t de­clare bank­ruptcy, did I?” he said when asked about his un­paid debts at the de­bate. “You saw ev­ery great coal com­pany in the world belly up. They stiffed ev­ery­body. I just kept dig­ging. It’s tough. It’s re­ally tough at times. But we didn’t give up.”

He added: “If we would have given up, what would have hap­pened? Those good peo­ple, men and women that were work­ing, they would have gone home, they wouldn’t have had their jobs. And I won’t feel bad for a sec­ond for try­ing to keep those peo­ple in their jobs.”

Jus­tice’s cam­paign has also em­pha­sised his abil­ity to pull off un­think­able eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment projects, point­ing to his pur­chase and turn­around of the once-broke Green­brier re­sort, a long-time play­ground in West Vir­ginia for mem­bers of Congress and for­eign dig­ni­taries.

FILE

Ganja field in Darlis­ton, West­more­land.

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