The Democratic challenger to West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice is slamming the Republican billionaire businessman over his companies’ legal troubles just as a trial is set to resume involving his family-owned business and a Pennsylvania coal distributor.
The attacks by Democratic nominee Ben Salango mark a departure from what so far has been a low-key governor’s race because of the coronavirus pandemic. Salango’s new television ad charges the governor with mixing his business interests with his duties as governor.
Justice, meanwhile, has worked to paint his rival as a puppet of Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin.
Once a Manchin ally and fellow Democrat, the incumbent governor is running as a Republican for the first time. Justice quit the Democratic party less than a year into his first term at a rally with President Donald Trump. He now plays up his backing from the president, who once pledged to revive the coal industry in a state that has turned solidly Republican over the past decade.
Salango, a member of the Kanawha County Commission, claims in his campaign’s latest ad buy that Justice used his office to help himself resolve tax debts for his companies. At a 2018 news conference, Justice declared his businesses no longer had back taxes, after NPR had reported he faced a tax bill of over $4.5 million in West Virginia.
Upon taking office, Justice said his children would run his business empire, stopping short of a blind trust, which he said was too complicated. Justice has enterprises in hospitality, coal mining and agriculture, many of which have become mired in lawsuits.
“I’ll never betray West Virginia like that,” Salango says in the ad.
Justice’s campaign says the incumbent remains focused on job creation. His platform also talks up his “strong, conservative leadership” and close backing of the president.
“Personal injury lawyer Ben Salango has made his living off of suing our businesses and doctors with frivolous lawsuits, causing many of our families to lose their jobs,” campaign spokesman Clay Sutton wrote in an email.
Two of Justice’s family-owned companies are involved in a lawsuit filed in Delaware. A virtual trial will resume next week in the case brought by Pennsylvania-based Xcoal Energy & Resources. Filed in 2018, it claims Justice and two of his companies, Roanoke, Virginia-based Bluestone Energy Sales Corp. and Southern Coal Corp., failed to fulfill a 2017 agreement to deliver hundreds of thousands of tons of coal for shipment overseas.
The defendants argue Xcoal breached the agreement in several ways, and that the company has a history of being sued by other coal companies for failing to complete shipments and then deflecting blame.
Salango is running a statewide bus tour amid the pandemic, touting his plans to implement ethics reform and attract foreign investment for the state’s energy sector at in-person events all over the state.
Justice recently posted on Facebook a graphic depicting Manchin as a liberal puppeteer running Salango’s campaign. The two recently tussled over the governor’s announcement that the state would be getting nearly $800 million in federal funds to expand rural broadband access. Manchin said in a statement it was “misleading” to suggest the money was guaranteed to pour into the state.
The most recently available campaign finance data filed in July shows Justice spent more than $1 million on television ads, outspending Salango by nearly $400,000. Campaigns will report financial figures again in early October, before the final sprint to election day on Nov. 3.