A Familiar Pattern: Businessman, Philanthropist, Politician—But Where is the Civic Accountability?

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October 7, 2016; National Public Radio

The use of the big philanthropic promise as a veil has now become commonplace in politics.

According to Forbes, James Conley “Jim” Justice is the richest person in West Virginia, worth $1.56 billion. NPQ started its coverage of Jim Justice in 2014, when Rick Cohen wrote that he exemplified “the problem of wealthy philanthropists whose charitable giving may camouflage some less than socially responsible corporate behavior.” Since that time, another wrinkle has appeared in the pattern: striving for political office on the very basis of that reprehensible behavior. As in, “I do bad things in business, don’t pay my taxes or penalties, and that means I am smart and that you should vote for me.”

Sound familiar?

In West Virginia, Jim Justice is the Democratic candidate for governor. He is also a billionaire, having made his money in coal, and makes claims of being a philanthropist. But even as he runs for governor, his mining companies have dragged their feet when it came to paying millions of dollars levied against them for mine safety penalties. In fact, Justice’s mining companies owe $15 million across six states for a combination of penalties and various taxes. Still, Justice apparently had enough personal loose change hanging around to pour $2.9 million in interest-free loans and in-kind contributions into his gubernatorial campaign.

According to this report, dozens of Justice’s mines, across West Virginia and other Appalachian states, have a history of safety violations and late payment of the penalties that are supposed to discourage unsafe practices. But since its last investigation in 2014, NPR has found that the mines owned by Justice have worse than average safety records, with injury rates at twice the national average and violations at four times the national average, and they have garnered another $1.38 million in new and unpaid mine safety penalties.

Even as they were delinquent in paying past penalties, Justice’s mines were cited for 3,657 violations, 699 of them classified by the Mine Safety and Health Association as factors in mine fatalities and major disasters. There are, unfortunately, no effective enforcement policies to make mines pay what they owe in safety fines, though a bill now in Congress would give the agency authority to shut down mines that have been delinquent for six months or more.

Justice, however, seems to be in political territory we are all having to live with lately: the denial of the patently obvious when it comes to personal responsibility.

“I’m a safety fanatic,” he said at a news conference. “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.”

And if that were not enough, Justice has brought his deadbeat tendencies to his philanthropy, too. In 2011, and to a lot of fanfare, Justice pledged to contribute $10 million to Cleveland Clinic Innovations. But a Cleveland Clinic spokesperson, Janice Guhl, told NPR that “no money was received from Mr. Justice.” Similarly, Justice has paid only $5 million on a $25 million pledge that was intended to create the James C. Justice National Scout Camp in West Virginia.

We can think of another politician who lately had to be hounded by none other than the Washington Post over a series of months to donate what he had promised—mostly out of other people’s money—to veteran’s organizations. He also had tax issues and openly and almost proudly screwed those he did business with. Is this a new breed of political billionaire, proudly flying the flag of amorality as a badge of their capacity? And what have we done to deserve it?—Ruth McCambridge