The Ethics of Mercy in WV

For the last few winters, I’ve worn an old coat that wouldn’t stay closed. My old coat had seen many years when the buttons started falling off. The threads fixing them on simply popped through the weak wool. When I sewed buttons back on, those eventually came through the disintegrating wool, too. I sewed them on again. And again.

As time passed, I imagine looked crazier and crazier because as the wool came apart, the buttons had to be attached further and further from where they should be, so when winter be-garbed I looked like a “mad aunt” character in some kids’ book—the one who loves collecting buttons so much she’s collected them right off of all her own clothes.

But this year, I spotted a coat on clearance, and bought it. A bright red coat. It was bargain I could afford without the wracking guilt of spending money we might need for some other emergency. That’s luck I’m grateful for.

Some people get nice windfalls, though—and not from luck. Some folks have the rigged political system—the system that funnels money from the poor to wealthy corporations—working for them.

And some even work to rig it.

Ethics law in WV states in part that “A public official or public employee may not knowingly and intentionally use his or her office or the prestige of his or her office for his or her own private gain or that of another person.”(WV Code §6B-2-5 (b))

This is pretty straightforward. And it means that when Governor Justice appoints people who refuse to act to protect West Virginians—when he encourages the DEP to ignore our protections and fight to help polluters—we can try to hold him ethically accountable. It is the job of the WV DEP to protect our health and welfare, not to ensure Coal Barons accrue extra millions while miners lose their pensions and healthcare, and folks in coal and frack communities lose years from their lives.

We want our government to focus on bringing in clean jobs in renewable, sustainable industries—good jobs with benefits. But what have they been focused on this year? How many solar subsidies did we see pass? How have our lives been made better? How has Justice championed us?

I’m not so sure he has.

It is not the job of the WV DEP to “stop saying ‘no’ to business and industry” as Justice would like them to. This is such a no-brainer.  It is EXACTLY the job of the WV DEP to say NO to industries when they threaten our health and safety.  By law. That’s their job BY LAW.

Letting industry do whatever it likes to us in the name of profit is just not the function of the DEP. And frankly, it doesn’t really matter whether Justice wishes it were different, or whether he suffers from that pathological drive to accumulate that might make someone use power to force sacrifices of people in exchange for profits—and think it’s okay. It’s not Justice’s job to accumulate things for himself right now, or to require that state entities help him do that.

What Justice wishes were true doesn’t affect what IS true, or what the DEP is, by law, called to do.

Yeah… ethics. #EthicsMatter. Or they should.

At a press conference in February, announcing the third downgrading of the state’s credit rating by Moody’s, Justice read a letter he claimed he received from a young girl, worried about whether her dad would be able to get a job in WV, or if instead she’d have to move and leave her school and friends. It was a tragic story, but I found it hard to see him as the sympathetic figure he seemed to be trying to imitate.

I just can’t reconcile the crocodile tears of a gubernatorial drama queen claiming he’s too sad to take any questions from the press when his tax plan would doubtless have hit this family hard—the poorest 80% of us would see tax increases, after all—while giving tax breaks to himself and the wealthiest among us. ALL the tax plans we’ve seen this year hit 80% of us with increases, and provide tax cuts for the very wealthiest: in other words, for himself. Some moreso than others, for sure. But the burden always rests upon those who can least afford it.

Mind you, there’s no requirement that these tax breaks the wealthy receive be transformed into employment or raises for workers. They give the breaks, claim it’s for “jobs,” and that money just goes to line the pockets of the rich as we’ve seen again and again. After this session, I suppose rich people had better make sure all their pockets are double-stitched. While the rest of us are struggling, they’re being handed more and more so that their pockets must be fit to burst.

This is our Governor Coal-Baron-in-Chief: what did you expect from a guy who thinks revealing a load of literal manure on a budget bill is a great way to make a political point? You thought he’d elevate the discourse? You thought he’d fight to help people who are being abused in fracking communities? You thought he’d help miners rather than barons? Nope. He supports forced pooling. And EQT wants him to push that in the special budget session that will cost the taxpayers so much. And he’d probably rather we not actually look at his record of care for miners.

Quite frankly, democratic legislators shouldn’t stand by Justice when he acts out like that with the budget veto. They should be encouraging him to tone it the heck DOWN—the same way national Republicans should be encouraging President Trump to tone it down. (See, you can tell I’m not a professional politician, because I’m willing to make everyone mad, I guess, by pointing out the obvious.)

But bad behavior should never be excused by party politics. Bad behavior, or a lack of ethics, shouldn’t be excusable because it comes from YOUR party, whichever party that happens to be. We’ll never have a productive debate if our leaders are rewarded for indulging in this juvenile posturing, whether it’s literal bullshit, or merely figurative.

“If you want to find out what a man is to the bottom, give him power. Any man can stand adversity–only a great man can stand prosperity. It is the glory of Abraham Lincoln that he never abused power only on the side of mercy. When he had power he used it in mercy. He loved to see the tears of the wife whose husband he had snatched from death.”

—Horatio Alger

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Perhaps Justice’s sympathy is real, somehow, just divorced from any realization that what he does reflects on us, and negatively affects the people he claims to have sympathy for, in the way affluenza is claimed to affect its “victims.” (Note: affluenza might be a nice word for sociopathy.) And perhaps he’s also divorced from the realization that his refusal to pay his taxes puts a real burden on small communities.

That’s best case scenario for us: that he’s ignorant, rather than malignant. That he hasn’t been able to make the connection in his brain that increasing taxes on the middle and working classes hurts the middle and working classes—that it hurts those least able to afford it. Is that amount of ignorance possible? (Sadly, the answer is probably yes.) But clearly, assuming the posture of sympathy while simultaneously picking that person’s pocket must be either an issue of ignorant hypocrisy… or ethics.

Unwitting or witting—which is it? We deserve to know.

If it’s a matter of ignorant hypocrisy, one would think someone should take some time to explain it to him. Let’s do that, shall we? But if it’s a matter of ethics and he’s purposefully acting to enrich himself at our expense, then we should hold him accountable to the law.

Here’s the thing about holding Justice ethically accountable, though: A public official who violates ethics rules is subject to review by the WV Ethics Commission… but trying to hold the new Governor accountable for ethics abuses could be difficult, because the Ethics Commission’s members are appointed by the Governor.


Still, there is a Review Board that determines whether or not any complaint has sufficient probable cause for the Ethics Commission to investigate. So they won’t be able to simple sweep something under the rug, right? But, uh-oh! This Review Board is also appointed by the Governor.

I think we’ve detected a problem here!

Look. It’s the governor’s job to appoint people to these positions. It’s what the executive does; this isn’t unique to our “unique” governor. But that also means that the governor, no matter who he is, is in a particularly sensitive position with regard to ethics challenges, and that our governors must take care to avoid not just impropriety, but even the appearance of impropriety.

Justice is certainly not doing that. Is “affluenza” causing a lack of mercy? Or sense?

He appointed a family friend Secretary of the WV DEP, who immediately removed our protections from excess noise and lights for industrial extraction activities that might decide to locate next to your peaceful family farm. And the chief of his transition team is now lobbying for Justice’s businesses… with the very people he put in place! And Justice still owes WV taxes and safety fines.

Is that ethical? Is this using power on the side of mercy? Is this snatching a spouse from the jaws of death out of fellow feeling… or is it feeding the Great Industrial Maw with bodies in hopes the extraction dragon will someday excrete a steaming pile of… money?

There are two systems of justice: one of the poor, and one for the rich

If YOU don’t pay your property taxes, you risk losing your property. If you’re a regular person who hasn’t paid a fine for speeding, there will be consequences. But the consequences for regular people are different than the consequences faced by the rich.

It is disquieting to realize that.


Jim Justice currently owes nearly 5 million to our state government. And this is AFTER he paid nearly $4 million in delinquent property taxes. He’s not delinquent because he doesn’t have the money. It’s not because he made some personal error on complex forms that he’s forced to figure out on his own, like most of us would be, without help or advice.

It’s because Justice makes money by not paying them. He collects interest, while whole communities suffer.

“Anytime that we don’t get our tax money paid, obviously it puts us in a little bit of a problem area in paying things that we need to pay — schools, we need to use the property tax to pay our jail bills, just to run the county in general. We’re a small county, so every little bit helps,” explained Monroe County Sheriff Mike Gravely in April of last year.

Doesn’t it make sense that the consequences of crippling an entire county should be more than any benefit or interest a person or business might derive from failing to pay their bills? Of course it does.

But whoops! The Governor also appoints the tax commissioner, the person whose job it is to make certain that “the laws concerning the assessment and collection of all taxes and levies are faithfully enforced.”

Ethics laws in WV provide for exemptions with regard to private gain if the official applies for an exemption ahead of time AND if the job “normally or specifically” requires someone with that sort of “prestige.” That is clearly not the case here. No other governor in our history has been a coal baron billionaire. I’m not sure how many other governors, if any, have been deadbeats on this sort of mortifying scale.

We have to demand that our governor, and our legislators, don’t balance the budget on our backs—and we have to demand they be held ethically accountable when they use their offices for private gain, as well as when they use their offices to oppose our constitution, which calls for our protection.

Reading the letter of a scared child does not win Justice an ethics pass—not when he’s the guy threatening to further burden her family, and not when he’s shamelessly using her real and reasonable anxiety as an excuse to avoid answering questions about broken promises and ethics issues. And instructing DEP employees to stop protecting us and start working for businesses instead does not change the law or our constitution.

Justice should not be using the letter of one of the scared children he plans to further victimize to disguise his actions to further rig the WV government against regular people. He should not be trying to bully DEP employees into removing our protections—both health protections and property rights protections—and overlooking violations so other Extraction Barons like himself can pocket more, and won’t get as many citations for operating unsafely.

Wealthy people and wealthy corporations should be paying their fair share. Right now, nearly all increased profits go to the wealthiest among us—so do the proposed tax breaks—and schemes that make large corporations more profitable for their owners for don’t result in more jobs or increased pay for workers. To stimulate our economy, we need a more progressive tax system. We can start by indexing CEO pay to the pay of the lowest paid worker in the company, and then enacting a surtax on excessive executive pay.

More income for our citizens equals more tax revenue from income for our budget. And it equals more spending at businesses, because those who really need the money would finally, finally be getting it.

Because I can go for a few years with an old coat. But there are plenty of people who have already gone their winters without and still can’t afford one—and who struggle to provide coats for their children.  School supplies. Shoes. Food. Families who want to send their children to college at the same time our state colleges are being targeted for steep cuts.  People who struggle to keep their cars going so they can get to and from work, and keep their jobs. Mercy, we beg you!

So why should our governor be more concerned with removing our protections and giving tax breaks to himself and to industry?

If business tax cuts provided jobs, we’d be swimming in them. Because cutting business taxes is what got us into this budget mess in the first place.

How we budget shows what our priorities as a state are: what’s important to us. Given that, why is the legislature and the governor focusing on things like Forced Pooling and polluting our waters? Does industry really have a right to make a profit off of what we own? Do they have a right to socialize their costs on us to save money?

Is this mercy?

And if not, then how do we hold our elected officials accountable to do their jobs? because conveniently, WV state employees cannot be held liable for failure to make an inspection, performing inadequate inspections, and so on.

One must wonder if this is what Governor inJustice, in the recent closed door meeting, was instructing the DEP to do. We may never know. But keeping us in the dark about the meeting, while continuing to attack us with legislation and executive rules changes that benefits his own industry at our expense certainly invites that speculation.

And it keeps me up at night. I can hardly be the only one

It is portentious, a thing of state...
He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.
He is among us:—as in times before!
And we who toss and lie awake for long
Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.

How can our governor be held ethically accountable for the damage and loss he’s inflicting on us, apparently in order to benefit himself and his friends?



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