CHARLESTON, W.Va. – West Virginia's state airplane can make side trips to Gov. Jim Justice's hometown as well as fly the billionaire businessman to campaign events if the trips coincide with official state business, ethics officials said Thursday.
The state ethics commission approved the travel as long as the primary purpose of the trip is for official state business and not as a pretext for non-governmental actions for Justice, a coal magnate who owns a lavish resort called The Greenbrier.
Additional costs such as meals and lodging on the campaign trial would not be covered by the state, according to the ethics commission.
The opinion from the commission, which is appointed by the governor, came after Justice's general counsel asked the panel to determine if the trips jibe with the state's ethics regulations “in light of recent political attacks.”
The request from the governor's office comes as the Republican contends with a long-running lawsuit filed by a Democratic lawmaker that accuses Justice of violating a passage of the state Constitution stating the governor “shall reside at the seat of government" in the state capital of Charleston.
Justice has acknowledged he lives in Lewisburg, a city about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the governor's mansion in Charleston but not far from his resort. Justice, whose estimated net worth totals $1.2 billion, has called the case “a total waste of time.”
“It's a shame the ethics commission didn't stand up for the taxpayers of West Virginia,” said Del. Isaac Sponaugle, who filed the residency lawsuit. “Instead they approved the arrogant conduct of the very guy who appointed most of them to serve on the ethics commission.”
In the request to the ethics commission, Justice's General Counsel Brian Abraham said Justice has used the state aircraft "numerous" times on official business trips that started or ended in Lewisburg. He also noted that Justice's uses the plane far less than his two predecessors.
“Governor Justice receives no personal gain from this travel, regardless of where it begins or ends. It puts no money in his pockets nor provides him private enjoyment,” Abraham wrote.
In terms of campaigning for reelection in the same area where Justice conducts official state business by way of the state plane, Abraham similarly wrote that the governor “receives no private gain.”
At least one political opponent disagreed.
“No other governor has refused to play by the rules like this. We just can't trust Jim Justice to uphold his oath of office. I'll put my businesses in a blind trust, focus 100% on serving as Governor & proudly live in the mansion, as our Constitution says,” Woody Thrasher, a Republican businessman challenging Justice in the GOP primary, wrote on Twitter.
Justice won office as a Democrat in 2016 but switched parties at a rally with President Donald Trump the following year. He's seeking a second term this year.