(WDBJ7)-- On an August day in 2018 the Governor of West Virginia, Jim Justice, took a seat in front of cameras, flanked by state leaders, and called it a “neat” day.
Governor Jim Justice addressing reporters at a 2018 news conference.
Justice told reporters, “Today we have been able, my son and all his companies, to now pay any and all tax obligations that were due to the State of West Virginia.”
Months leading up to that moment the billionaire and his family, who owns more than 100 companies and properties in WV, VA, TN and KY, had been under fire for not paying taxes.
The state would not disclose how much the Justice companies paid up, just that all of the balances in West Virginia were cleared.
The governor addressed reporters before taking questions.
“One of your questions today may very well be, well what about Kentucky? Or what about Virginia? And I think if you will just bide your time and wait, you will see the exact outcome there as well,” said Justice.
One year later, delinquent taxes still mount across Virginia. The Justice companies owe more than $1 million to Virginia localities from Wise County to Prince George.
WDBJ7 filed open records requests across the state where the Justice family companies are known to own property.
In mid-June, we found more than 2 million dollars of delinquent taxes owed by the Justice companies in 10 localities: Roanoke City, Orange County, Tazewell County, Wise County Russell County, Roanoke County, Botetourt County, Dickenson County, Prince George County and Lee County.
“When the one that rise to the top every month, when it stays that way for a long time, then we have to make harder decisions,” Evelyn Powers, Treasurer for the City of Roanoke, told WDBJ7 in a June interview.
Powers said that the Justice companies have ranked at a steady number one for delinquent taxes in the city. They own an office on Jefferson Street and were delinquent on real estate taxes for two years, owing more than $100,000 to the city.
Powers said after not hearing from the company, and as a last resort, her office slated the property for tax sale earlier this year. The space would have been put up for sale in July.
“That got some attention and they came in and paid all of that tax up,” said Powers.
A similar situation unfolded in Albemarle County.
The Justice companies own a swath of land known as the Presidential Estates and owed the county more than $400,000.
The county sent a final notice and was getting the property ready for judicial sale when they received a wire transfer of more than $404,000 in June, paying all of the back taxes.
During our reporting, we learned that other pressures can cause companies to pay taxes as well.
On June 17th, the City of Roanoke sent WDBJ7 a spreadsheet identifying delinquent personal property taxes owed by the Justice companies, separate from the real estate taxes paid after almost losing their Jefferson St. property.
After paying their real estate taxes, the companies still owed a total of more than $190,000. Some of the accounts had been sitting unpaid since 2015. For example, the account for Justice Family Farms has not been paid for four years, racking up a bill of more than $23,000.
“When we can’t get anybody to call us back and you don’t take notice to the phone calls, what that tells my office is, I’m not going to pay you,” said Powers.
WDBJ7 wanted to sit down with Governor Justice or someone from the Justice companies to understand why the taxes were sitting unpaid for so long.
On July 2nd, we called a lawyer for the companies and followed up with an email. Seven days later we sent another email, after not hearing back. The morning of July 10th, we emailed again. Later that day, a representative from a public relations firm working for Justice called WDBJ7.
The representative said no one was willing to do an interview, but they would provide us with a statement addressing some of our questions.
That afternoon we emailed the representative with specific questions about some of the localities we had been looking into.
That same day, all but two of the year- long debts at the Roanoke City treasurer’s office were paid in full.
We saw that trend unfold across that map during our short time investigating. Delinquencies that were sitting unpaid for years were suddenly paid.
According to a report run in June by Dawn Watson, Treasurer of Orange County, Justice Farms of North Carolina owed more than $224,000 to the county for 2016, 2017 and 2018. One month after our initial request, all of the delinquencies were paid in full.
The representative for the Justice family told WDBJ7, “Governor Justice and his family employ thousands of people in several states. Like any business, they meet obligations where they exist and fight those that are wrong or in error under the law. The Companies have been in constant contact with these counties to try and resolve the discrepancies.”
Tazewell County is one of the counties that the Justice companies claim to be working with. The representative said that the companies are on a payment plan and are in “good standing” with Tazewell County.
However, David Larimer, Treasurer of Tazewell County, told WDBJ7 he would not use those exact words. The county is still owed a little more than $580,000.
“They are on a payment plan with Tazewell County, but I wouldn't necessarily say that they are in "good standing" with us because they are still in delinquency and with only paying $10,000 a month it will take a long time to get this delinquency paid in full,” Larimer said in an email.
The companies also said they are on a payment plan with Wise County. According to the county’s treasurer office, the companies owe more than $1 million in personal property and real estate taxes.
WDBJ7 found discrepancies between what the representative for the Justice family told us and what county leaders say is happening.
In Lee County, the Justice’s PR firm said that the companies are working on a swap with the county where the companies would give Lee County a power line right-of-way in exchange for payment of the remaining tax debt.
“This would be of great value for the citizens of Lee County,” the Justice’s representative wrote in a statement.
However, Rita McCann, treasurer of Lee County, said that the swap between Virginia Fuels and the county is not going to happen.
“This is not true,” McCann wrote in an email. “Virginia Fuel owes Lee County taxes and the properties are advertised to be sold for non-payment of taxes.”
One piece of property has also been sent to a lawyer in Botetourt County, where Blueridge Farm Center Inc, James C Justice III and Justice Farms of North Carolina owe the county more than $50,000.
“Mr. Justice is the governor of West Virginia. He should understand what delinquencies cost any government,” said Powers. “Not just the City of Roanoke, but any government in our country.”
Prince George County was the only county that would not disclose how much the Justice companies owe, but they did confirm that all of the properties owned by the Justices are delinquent including the historic Flowerdew Hundred Estate. The county told WDBJ7 they have reached an agreement with the companies and they are paying on a payment plan.
The representative for the Justice family said they are happy to have paid in full in Orange, Albemarle, Culpepper and Roanoke City.
“The culmination of payments that have been paid or will be made in the future as part of the payment plans, satisfy all outstanding property taxes in Virginia,” said a representative for the Justice family in a statement.
WDBJ7 has identified $1.9 million still owed in Dickenson County, Wise County, Botetourt County, Lee County, Tazewell County and Russell County.
Dollars that the people who run local governments say, go right back into the community. It is why the treasurers say they are aggressive about collecting delinquent taxes no matter who owes or how much.
“You see kids getting on the school bus, people picking up your trash, fixing potholes, fire, EMS, police, those all cost services,” said Powers.
You can read the full statement from the Justice family here:
“Governor Justice and his family employ thousands of people in several states. Like any business, they meet obligations where they exist and fight those that are wrong or in error under the law. The Companies have been in constant contact with these Counties to try and resolve the discrepancies. We are happy to report that the Virginia Counties of Orange, Albemarle, and Culpepper have been paid in full. We have also reached an agreement with Prince George County which we are paying on a payment plan. This payment plan is current and fully in compliance. In Western Virginia, the Company has reached agreements with Tazewell and Wise Counties. These amounts are being paid on payment plans monthly. Both Tazewell and Wise County payment plans are current and are in good standing. The Company continues to negotiate with Lee County. The Company and Lee County are working on a swap where the Company would give Lee County a powerline right-of-way in exchange for payment of the remaining tax debt. This would be of great value for the citizens of Lee County. Lastly, Roanoke City and Dickenson County have been paid in full. The culmination of payments that have been paid or will be made in the future as part of the payment plans, satisfy all outstanding property taxes in Virginia.”