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Billionaire W.Va. governor’s family farms get subsidy

Governor Jim Justice is the richest person in West Virginia. He owns a complex business empire of coal and agricultural entities that are perennially mired in litigation, often over unpaid bills.
Governor Jim Justice is the richest person in West Virginia. He owns a complex business empire of coal and agricultural entities that are perennially mired in litigation, often over unpaid bills.Chris Dorst/Charleston Gazette-Mail via Associated Press/File 2019/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP

LEWISBURG, W.Va. — A farming business owned by the family of West Virginia’s billionaire governor has received $125,000 in soybean and corn subsidies, the maximum allowed from a federal program meant to help American farmers through the US trade war with China.

There is no evidence Governor Jim Justice did anything illegal. But at least one analyst said the payments to the richest man in West Virginia are unseemly, given his wealth. And the subsidies have thrown the spotlight again on his business empire and the potential conflicts of interest it poses.

Records reviewed by the Associated Press show Justice Farms of North Carolina, owned by the Republican governor’s family, hit the program cap of $125,000 earlier this year and was the biggest recipient of soybean subsidies in West Virginia.

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The richest person in the state, Justice owns a complex business empire of coal and agricultural entities that are perennially mired in litigation, often over unpaid bills. The farming company is no different. It is named in a long-running lawsuit that alleges the Justice businesses transferred assets between them in an effort to avoid paying a debt.

The company took in $121,398 in subsidies for soybeans and $3,602 for corn for farms on property it owns in West Virginia, according to records provided to AP under the Freedom of Information Act. Both figures far exceed the program’s median payments: $6,438 for soybeans and $152 for corn.

President Trump’s administration set up the Market Facilitation Program to help offset losses caused by tariffs, basing the payouts on bushels produced. The program does not require farms to demonstrate their operations have been damaged by the trade war.

Loopholes have allowed many large, moneyed farming operations to blow past the $125,000 cap, according to an AP analysis of the payments. Critics, including Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, have called for tighter oversight on where the taxpayer funds are funneled.

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‘‘We really think you should be subsidizing people who need the help. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for taxpayers to be providing billions of dollars to wealthy farmers who do not need the subsidies,’’ said Anne Weir Schechinger, a senior economic analyst at the Environmental Working Group, which tracks federal farm subsidy programs.

More subsidies for the Justice family company could be on the way. The administration has rolled out another $16 billion in aid for farmers hurt by the president’s trade policies but made some changes after criticism that large farming organizations were finding ways around the caps. Officials have increased the cap to $250,000 for the second round and payment calculations are based on acres planted and location instead of production.

Information on how the trade war has affected the Justice farms wasn’t available. Officials in Greenbrier County, home to the subsidized farms, declined to release the company’s agriculture data to the AP, as did the United States Department of Agriculture’s regional National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Justice’s government spokesman referred questions and an interview request to a representative for Justice’s companies, who issued a statement saying tens of thousands of farms and ranches with products ‘‘directly impacted’’ by Chinese tariffs received money under the subsidies.

‘‘Justice Farms of North Carolina was one of more than 3,000 farms in that state alone, and nearly 40,000 farms and businesses nationwide, that received support from this program. It’s absurd for anyone to use this important program as the basis for cynical political attacks,’’ said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the Justice companies.

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Walsh did not detail losses suffered by Justice Farms of North Carolina in the US trade war.

West Virginia property records show the company has three farming properties and one residential building not far from The Greenbrier, a lavish resort the governor owns. The properties have a combined value of $1.87 million and span nearly 700 acres, with one including a full-size tennis court, according to state records.

The sprawling farms are nestled into a relatively flat stretch of land between sections of the Appalachian Mountains. On a recent visit, the farms were covered with rows upon rows of tall, dry stalks of corn.

Belinda Biafore, the chairwoman of the West Virginia Democratic Party, issued a statement Thursday criticizing Justice for obtaining the subsidy.

‘‘Real, hardworking farmers are being hurt by President Trump’s trade war. So much so that he is having to provide government subsidies,’’ she said. ‘‘Many of those farmers desperately need subsidy money to feed their families, but Governor Jim Justice does not.’’