Power plant article creates a spark

It’s been a while since I got to take you behind-the-scenes of how a news story comes together, so sit back as I explain my two-part series on a lawsuit against a company owned by Gov. Jim Justice brought by a company that just got a tax break from the state.

First of all, let me do a little throat-clearing. I’m from Pleasants County, an attendee of St. Marys High School and a graduate of North Pleasants Christian School. I can tell you that the $12.5 million business and occupation tax break is huge for the county.

If you’re from the county, you know someone who has worked at Pleasants Power. As a kid, my own father worked part-time there as a security guard. He was in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1977 and was not around when the cooling tower collapse at the plant claimed the lives of 51 people, including four brothers. My dad still has the newspaper clipping from that tragedy.

I say all of that to say that removing the business and occupation tax was the right thing to do. It was the only coal-fired power plant in the state still paying it. The tax break was a matter of fairness and staves off a closing in the short-term which would have cost the county, the region, and the state hundreds of millions more than the state will lose by letting the FirstEnergy Solutions $12.5 million annually.

So, am I biased? You tell me. I’ve now written three positive stories on the Pleasants Power tax break. But I have also written two stories on how one of the 116 companies listed on Gov. Justice’s financial disclosure form for 2019 was being sued for $3.1 million by the same company that just got the tax break.

As most new stories do, it starts with a tip. In this case, I was told Monday to give FES’ bankruptcy filing a look. It’s easy to do through the federal government’s PACER system, alongside CourtListener, a website that allows you to get alerts when new federal court filings are uploaded.

It didn’t take long to find it. As you’ve seen, I’ve written about a number of stories about Justice’s various companies in federal court. The name hit me like neon lights: Bluestone Energy Sales. Turns out they had a deal with FES in 2016 to stockpile coal in case of a disruption in the supply of coal from Murray Energy’s union mines.

That disruption never happened, so Bluestone agreed to sell the stockpiled coal on FES’ behalf and pay them. If there was any coal left at a certain date, Bluestone was supposed to pay FES $40 for every ton still left. FES believes they’re owed $3.1 million. As part of their chapter 11 bankruptcy they filed suit against Bluestone to get that money. Bluestone believes they paid them what that tonnage was worth based on the stockpile deteriorating due to weather.

To be clear, beyond FES owning Pleasants Power, Justice owning Bluestone Energy Sales, and Justice adding a bill to the special session for a tax break for FES, I have no idea if any improprieties occurred. The reason I wrote the story, however, is because I felt the public had a right to know this case was lurking in the background. I’m also watching this lawsuit in case it’s resolved in any way.

It was a one-day story unless something happens with the lawsuit. That is until I received a statement Wednesday from a “representative of Justice’s companies.” I used to do government public relations, and the last thing you want to do in public relations is keep a story damaging to your client in the news for another day. By sending me a comment nearly half a day after my first story ran, I pretty much had to write a second story.

Secondly, only two of the 116 companies listed on Justice’s most recent financial disclosure are in blind trusts, where companies are temporarily turned over to an independent board or group of people. This is done to protect elected officials from conflicts of interest. Justice has balked at the need to do blind trusts for all his companies, instead turning them over to his son and daughter to manage.

Jay Justice runs the coal side of the governor’s businesses. The “representative of Justice’s companies” sent me a statement, but not from Jay. The statement was on behalf of the “governor.” By doing that, it sure makes it look like the company was aware of the work Justice did getting the FES tax break bill passed. It also didn’t help that the attorney for Bluestone said there was no quid pro quo without being asked.

Look, I still believe the tax break to save Pleasants Power was appropriate. I believe the Governor’s Office and Bluestone’s attorney when they tell me Justice was unaware of the lawsuit. I have no reason at this time to believe there is quid pro quo, nor have I made any assertions that there was.

If anything, this is a perfect example as to why Justice’s businesses should all be in blind trusts. If Bluestone Energy Sales had been in a blind trust, I doubt I would have written the first story. With 116 companies, many involved in various lawsuits in federal court, this was bound to happen. It’s painfully obvious the left hand of Justice’s companies don’t know what the right hand is doing.

But that is how you turn a one-day story into a two-day story. And it’s a shame, because it could overshadow a good thing for Pleasants County. I don’t think it puts the bill in jeopardy, but I do have to wonder if the governor will sign it or let it become law without his signature.

(Adams is the state government reporter for Ogden Newspapers. He can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)