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Schedules show West Virginia governor largely absent in job

FILE - In this Feb. 19, 2019, file photo, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice speaks during a press conference at the state Capitol in Charleston, W.Va., after the House of Delegates passed a motion to postpone indefinitely a vote on Senate Bill 451. Justice is a hard man to find. Since he took office as the state’s 36th governor a little more than two years ago, he has been criticized for missing key policy debates and rarely being at the statehouse. Some lawmakers suggest he can’t focus on governing because he’s too busy tending to his business empire, now under intense scrutiny from the federal government. (Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP, File)

By ANTHONY IZAGUIRRE Associated Press
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — He’s a billionaire who owns mines, farms and the swankiest resort in all of West Virginia. But how Jim Justice spends his time as the state’s 36th governor has largely been a mystery.
Since he took office a little more than two years ago, Justice has been dogged by criticism that he’s rarely at the Statehouse. He’s been called a part-time governor and criticized for missing key policy debates. Some lawmakers have suggested he can’t focus on governing because he’s busy tending to his expansive business empire, which has recently come under scrutiny from the federal government.
The Republican governor has pushed back hard on those claims amid calls to resign over his absenteeism and insisted he has “not stopped working “ since taking office.
Yet his schedule for the past seven months — recently released to The Associated Press in response to a request filed under West Virginia’s open records law — shows he almost never meets with his Cabinet, is rarely at the capital and was largely missing at one of the most critical points of this year’s legislative session. The schedules mostly show him at photo ops or simply unaccounted for.
“He seems like he doesn’t have his whole heart in it,” said Sen. Roman W. Prezioso Jr., the Democratic Senate minority leader. “He’s got too much on his plate. You either want to be governor or you want to run your business. You’re going to have to choose one or the other.”
Justice’s office said he wasn’t available for an interview but released a statement in which he said his calendar doesn’t reflect the time and work he’s put in as governor.
“The calendar that you got through your FOIA request is used by my staff to try to keep straight my crazy schedule as governor, which can sometimes change by the minute and because of this, there are times where all the good work we’re doing never makes it onto the calendar,” he wrote. “… I’ve been working like crazy the last two plus years, turning over every rock possible to make our great state even greater.”
Justice’s lawyer, Brian Abraham, said in a statement that using the calendar “to glean anything ironclad about the governor’s constantly-changing schedule would not be an accurate representation of the truth.”
But Sen. Craig Blair, a Republican who chairs the Senate finance committee, said Justice spends less time at the Statehouse than any governor he’s ever seen. He described Justice’s management style as “remote.”
“He has his staffers do a lot of the work, and then when he comes in it’s more of a cheerleading type of thing rather than talking specifics,” he said.
Justice’s communications director, Butch Antolini, is also hard to reach, rarely returning calls or emails.
When the AP first requested a copy of Justice’s schedule, his office refused. The office said that it was in draft format and not an accurate log of Justice’s appointments, and that its release could put his security at risk. His office used the same reasoning in rejecting a similar request made by the Charleston Gazette-Mail .
After about six weeks of emails and calls from the AP questioning the denial, lawyer Abraham agreed to send a copy of Justice’s calendar from November to May. He said Justice doesn’t schedule or log most office time in his calendar, preferring an open-door approach.
The open-door policy hinges on Justice being at the Capitol, but Republicans and Democrats both say his presence in Charleston is rare.
Prezioso said the governor’s Statehouse attendance is so sporadic that, if he needs to talk with him, he looks out his office window to see if the governor’s black sport utility vehicle is parked in its usual spot up on the sidewalk.
Although seldom at the Statehouse, Justice spends a fair amount of time using the state airplane to fly to ceremonial appearances and photo ops, according to an AP review of travel receipts and the governor’s schedule. Justice’s office paid about $13,000 for the use of the plane from November to February.
Democratic Del. Isaac Sponaugle filed a lawsuit against the governor to get him to turn over location records and force him to live in the capital as required by the state constitution. Justice has acknowledged he doesn’t live in the governor’s mansion in Charleston, but at a home about 100 miles (160 kilometers) away. The state has paid about $20,000 for a private lawyer to represent Justice in the ongoing case, according to documents obtained by the AP through a records request.
“The state is just loaded with all types of problems that are not getting corrected and are actually getting worse,” Sponaugle said. “His lack of interest and absenteeism are one of the main reasons why that is occurring.”
Republican Senate President Mitch Carmichael said fixing the state’s major issues are “a big job and you can’t put it on autopilot.”
The myriad businesses that some say are taking up much of the governor’s time are now being investigated by the federal government, adding another potential distraction.
In his most recent financial disclosure statement, Justice lists more than 100 business interests, including coal and timber companies. He’s said he wants to put his assets in a blind trust but hasn’t done so. Federal prosecutors have requested records relating to the governor’s resort, The Greenbrier, as well as a host of Justice’s tax documents, according to two subpoenas sent to Justice’s administration that have recently become public. The U.S. Department of Justice has also sued nearly two dozen of Justice’s coal companies to get them to pay about $4.8 million in unpaid mine-safety fines.
“I just think it would be better to have someone in the governor’s office who was present most of the time and more engaged in the day-to-day operations of the state and the legislative process,” Democratic state Sen. Corey Palumbo said.