CHARLESTON — Pendleton County lawyer and former legislator Isaac Sponaugle sent West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice a 30-day intent to sue notice Thursday for Justice’s alleged failure to comply with a March 1 settlement agreement to reside at the seat of government in Charleston.
“Jim Justice needs to decide what he wants to do with his time,” Sponaugle said in announcing his intent to sue. “He’s a part-time governor, part-time businessman and part-time basketball coach. The only thing that he’s doing full time is residing in Greenbrier County.”
Sponaugle added, “That’s going to end, and he will abide by the Constitution whether he likes it or not.”
Sponaugle is contending that Justice is failing to comply with the terms of the March 1 settlement of his suit in Kanawha Circuit Court, in which Justice agreed to live in Charleston “consistent with the definition of ‘reside’ in the Supreme Court of Appeals’ opinion.”
In a 4-1 opinion handed down Nov. 20, 2020, the Supreme Court concluded that “reside” is not a discretionary term, and determined that the constitutional definition of reside means “to live, primarily, at the seat of government and requires that the executive official’s principal place of physical presence is the seat of government for the duration of his or her term in office.”
The high court remanded the case to Kanawha Circuit Court, leading to the settlement agreement that the court ratified March 1.
In issuing the intent to sue, required under state law in lawsuits involving state agencies and officials, Sponaugle said Justice is failing to abide by the terms of the settlement.
“Jim Justice hasn’t lived up to his word that he would reside at the seat of government,” Sponaugle said. “It’s his choice on how this will proceed, but he will reside at the seat of government, either voluntarily or involuntarily, as long as he remains governor of the state of West Virginia.”
News reports have provided evidence that Justice continues to reside at his home in Lewisburg. Flight logs for the state King Air airplane also show that the state plane frequently picks up or drops off Justice at the Greenbrier Valley Regional Airport, outside of Lewisburg.
The Justice administration has also refused to release records of governor’s mansion expenditures to HD Media, although prior administrations have regarded those expense reports as public records.
Sponaugle said Thursday that if he has to go to court to seek a Writ of Mandamus to compel Justice to comply with the March 1 settlement, he plans to use the flight logs as evidence.
Sponaugle also said he has evidence to show that Justice has spent more than 183 days so far in 2021 residing outside of Charleston — with 183 days being the minimum number of days necessary under state law to establish residency.
Sponaugle’s intent to sue notice comes a day after Justice filed a grievance against the Greenbrier County Board of Education for voting against hiring him as the boys basketball coach at Greenbrier East High School, which is 149 miles from the state Capitol by car — a point Sponaugle said he also intends to raise if the case goes to court.
Justice currently coaches the girls basketball team at Greenbrier East, which has been a bone of contention for Sponaugle and other past or current legislators, since much of the basketball season coincides with the 60-day regular session of the Legislature each year.
Sponaugle originally filed suit against Justice in August 2018 for failing to comply with Article 7, Section 1 of the state constitution, which requires the governor and other statewide constitutional officers to “reside at the seat of state government during their terms of office.”
During arguments before the Supreme Court, attorneys for Justice — who has stated that he splits his time between Charleston and his home in Lewisburg — argued unsuccessfully that the constitutional mandate gives the governor discretion to determine how much time he or she will spend working and residing in Charleston.
As part of the March 1 settlement, Justice agreed to pay Sponaugle, who brought the suit as a private citizen, $65,000 for expenses, and paid Sponaugle using governor’s office funds, records with the state Auditor’s Office show.
At the time of the settlement, Sponaugle said it was a good resolution to the case.
“It’s extremely rewarding that our old constitution still has a little bit of oomph to it,” Sponaugle said at the time. “You just gotta stick up for it every now and then. You can’t just roll over and play dead.”
Justice’s personal attorneys Mike Carey and Steve Ruby issued a statement Thursday afternoon contending that Sponaugle is “grasping for media attention by trying to revive this pointless suit.”
Citing Justice’s high approval ratings in public opinion polls and the large margin of his 2020 re-election victory, his lawyers stated: “The people of West Virginia know exactly how hard Governor Justice works and how much he’s accomplished for the state. They know he’s on the job for them every day, either in Charleston or out among the 99% of West Virginians who don’t live in the capital.”
They also referenced his coaching, by noting that West Virginians “know his commitment to the state is matched only by his commitment to young people. When he’s not solving the state’s problems, he’s mentoring youngsters as a volunteer high school basketball coach.”
However, nothing in the 363-word statement directly addresses Sponaugle’s assertion that Justice is failing to comply with the terms of the March 1 settlement in which he agreed to reside in Charleston.