West Virginia governor's companies get millions in coronavirus loans

Billionaire West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice's family businesses received at least $11.1 million from a federal rescue package meant to keep small businesses afloat during the coronavirus pandemic, according to data released by the Treasury Department on Monday.

Justice, a Republican, is considered to be West Virginia's richest man through ownership of dozens of coal and agricultural businesses, many of which have been sued for unpaid debts.

At least six Justice family entities received the Paycheck Protection Program loans, including four energy companies, the governor's lavish resort The Greenbrier, as well as The Greenbrier Sporting Club, an exclusive club for people who own real estate at the resort, according to the data. The businesses were listed as collecting between $11.15 million and $24.35 million because the federal government disclosed the dollar figures in ranges, not specific amounts.

The aid package is the centerpiece of the federal government’s plan to rescue an economy devastated by shutdowns and uncertainty, with the data released Monday presenting the fullest accounting of the program thus far.

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Justice acknowledged last week that his private companies received money from the program but said he did not know specific dollar amounts. A representative for the governor's family companies did not immediately return an email seeking comment. At a news briefing Monday, Justice again said he was unsure of the dollar amount but added that he pushed for companies to take advantage of any federal virus relief programs.

“I encouraged all business 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, adding that around $2 billion has come into the state from the federal package.

The governor said he wanted to place his assets in a blind trust shortly after he was elected but has not done so. He maintains that his children are in control of the family business empire. Still, Justice has faced criticism throughout his time as governor from those who argue he is too focused on his private companies to perform his government duties. The governor has repeatedly pushed back on such claims.

Justice bought The Greenbrier resort out of bankruptcy in 2009. Nestled in the Allegheny Mountains in southeastern West Virginia, The Greenbrier bills itself as America’s Resort and once served as a secret Cold War-era bunker for the federal engorgement. Now, the National Historic Landmark boasts more than 700 rooms and has hosted a PGA Tour stop. It closed temporarily because of the pandemic.

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The resort came under the scrutiny of federal prosecutors last year, when attorneys in a public corruption unit sent three subpoenas to the Justice administration seeking documents related to The Greenbrier, the PGA tournament, the tournament’s nonprofit financial arm and Justice’s tax records. The governor’s personal legal team told reporters at a January news conference the investigation ended with no finding of wrongdoing.

Last year, another one of Justice’s family businesses, Justice Farms of North Carolina, received $125,000 in soybean and corn subsidies, the maximum allowed from a separate federal program meant to help American farmers through the U.S. trade war with China. The payments, made public through records provided to The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act, highlighted the sometimes fraught relationship between the billionaire’s businesses and his role as chief executive.

Justice won office in 2016 as a Democrat but announced after less than a year as governor that he was changing his party affiliation to Republican during a rally with President Donald Trump.

Under the Paycheck Protection Program, the government is backing $659 billion in low-interest loans written by banks. Taxpayer money will pay off the loans if borrowers use them on payroll, rent and similar expenses. Companies typically must have fewer than 500 workers to qualify.

Demand was so great that a first infusion of $349 billion ran out in just two weeks. Many Main Street businesses could not navigate the application process rapidly enough to get one of those first loans before funding dried up. Meanwhile, several hundred companies traded on stock exchanges -- hardly the image of a small business -- received loans maxing out at $10 million each, causing a public backlash and leading dozens to return the money.

Congress added $310 billion to the program, but confusing, shifting and sometimes restrictive rules cooled interest. About $140 billion was unclaimed as the application deadline closed June 30. With money still available, Congress voted to extend the program just as it was expiring, setting a new date of Aug. 8.

The public may never know the identity of more than 80% of the nearly 5 million beneficiaries to date because the administration has refused to release details on loans under $150,000 -- the vast majority of borrowers. That secrecy spurred an open-records lawsuit by a group of news organizations, including The Associated Press.