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• ProPublica, an investigative news outlet, has published articles detailing the history of Justice’s companies in the courtroom and reported that “Justice’s constellation of companies has been involved in more than 600 lawsuits.”
• We could not confirm how many lawsuits against Justice were specifically for unpaid bills, which is the type of lawsuit Salango referenced.
• Some of the lawsuits documented in the ProPublica series involved government fines, worker compensation fund premiums, damages, loan defaults, and a contempt of court citation.
Ben Salango, the Democrat trying to unseat Jim Justice, West Virginia’s Republican governor, released a campaign ad in September that contrasts his humble roots to the present-day fortune of his opponent, a billionaire.
In the ad, titled "Raised Better," Salango focuses on the number of times Justice has been sued.
"My family worked hard to build a business and even harder to pay the bills," Salango says in the ad, which the candidate tweeted out. "Jim Justice is a billionaire who has been sued over 600 times for not paying his bills."
We were unable to confirm the specific number of lawsuits against Justice for unpaid bills through original documentation, so we’re not going to rate the statement for accuracy on the Truth-O-Meter.
However, Salango’s campaign pointed us to articles by the nonprofit investigative news outlet ProPublica published in May 2020.
The ProPublica articles detail the many lawsuits against Justice and they cite the number of lawsuits as about 600. However, Salango may have exaggerated the number of lawsuits that pertained specifically to unpaid bills. (Justice’s campaign did not respond to inquiries for this article.)
Justice’s family has long been involved in businesses ranging from coal to farming to timber, and he expanded them when he took over. Justice also purchased the Greenbrier resort in his home state in 2009. By the time he won the governorship in 2016 (as a Democrat, before switching parties in 2017), Justice was running some 100 different companies.
The ProPublica articles, authored by Ken Ward Jr. and Alex Mierjeski, 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."
ProPublica detailed 32 specific lawsuits in which the governor’s companies have been ordered to or agreed to pay at least $500,000.
The articles "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."
It’s worth noting, however, that most of the 600-plus lawsuits were filed not directly against Justice but rather against the companies he has owned.
In addition, while many small vendors and contractors did go to court to demand payments on bills (as have his lawyers, on occasion), the 600 suits against Justice also include actions involving other types of payments and creditors.
One of the biggest cases involved unpaid government fines. Earlier this year, ProPublica reported, Justice’s 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."
Another big case involved allegedly unpaid premiums by his companies into a state workers’ compensation fund. The company denied the charges, and the case dragged on for several years, but the company ultimately settled the case for $5.1 million, ProPublica reported.
In one instance, a Canadian steel mill sued Justice companies for damages over missed coal shipments. Other examples on ProPublica’s list of 32 large cases included unpaid taxes, loan defaults, lack of layoff notices, and a contempt of court fine.
Justice has blamed Mechel OAO, a Russian firm that bought Justice’s coal company before selling it back to him a few years later, for some of the unpaid bills. He said Mechel operated the company poorly and ran up debts it couldn’t pay. By buying back the company, Justice has argued that he’s now stuck with having to pay debts he didn’t incur, ProPublica reported.
Justice did not respond to the authors of the ProPublica article when it was being reported. He did send an email blast to voters earlier this year with the headline "Fake News Alert." In it, he accused Ward of being personally biased against Justice and President Donald Trump, another billionaire businessman who’s close to Justice.
PolitiFact West Virginia reached out to Ward to see if he thought that Salango’s ad used the 600-lawsuit figure accurately, but Ward declined to comment.
In an Oct. 6 tweet, Salango was more measured in reiterating the point of his ad, this time leaving out the term "unpaid bills." Salango said in the tweet, "Yea I may be a lawyer, but Jim Justice has been sued over 600 times. He actually has more courtroom experience than I do."
Ben Salango, campaign ad, Sept. 9, 2020
Ben Salango, tweet, Oct. 13, 2020,
Jim Justice, campaign email, May 18, 2020
ProPublica, See Who’s Taken Jim Justice to Court Over Unpaid Bills, May 27, 2020
ProPublica, The Billionaire Governor Who’s Been Sued Dozens of Times for Millions in Unpaid Bills, May 27, 2020
Almanac of American Politics 2020
Email interview with Kelsi Browning, spokesperson for Ben Salango, Oct. 8, 2020