CHARLESTON — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has defended the legitimacy of the state’s vaccine incentive sweepstakes, saying during his COVID-19 briefing Tuesday, “You’ve got to know from my standpoint, I don’t want to know who’s won until the Lottery picks them.”
With just 349,000 total sweepstakes entries, Justice suggested that odds of winning prizes in the vaccination incentive sweepstakes are comparatively good.
“Your chances of winning in this are off the charts,” he said. “Your chances of winning in this are pretty dadgum good.”
Justice’s comments Tuesday were in response to a question about how Justice is able to surprise winners at their workplaces and other locations when that information is not part of the vaccination sweepstakes entry form.
“We just find out where they are and everything, and we just kind of catch them off-guard,” Justice said.
Questions about the legitimacy of the sweepstakes awards have lit up social media around the state after claims that some winners have ties to Justice, particularly after a longtime employee of prominent state auto dealer and Republican Party leader Bill Cole won a $1 million prize, presented to her by Cole and Justice at Cole’s auto dealership July 7.
Justice on Tuesday said he made arrangements to have the check presentation at the Cole dealership after learning that the million-dollar winner worked there.
“It just worked out that she worked at one of Bill Cole’s dealerships, so I called Bill, and told Bill and Bill surely kept it secret and everything,” Justice said.
He stressed that the drawing of sweepstakes winners and alternates are handled entirely by the state Lottery, adding, “I’m sure they’re doing it all above-board.”
In fact, for the first three weeks of vaccination incentive sweepstakes drawings, the Governor’s Office has awarded prizes solely to winners selected in state Lottery drawings, with no prizes awarded to date to alternates or to individuals not on the Lottery’s list of winners.
Each Monday morning, Lottery officials draw names for winners in the vaccination incentive sweepstakes, using a random number generator software program.
For major prizes, the Lottery draws a winner and five alternates, in the event the winner or first alternates cannot be contacted regarding arrangements for receipt of the prizes.
The names of the weekly winners are sent to the Governor’s Office, and the office would have to contact the Lottery to request the name of the first alternate in the event that any winner cannot be contacted, according to Lottery officials.
Documents provided by the Lottery show that all recipients of sweepstakes prizes awarded June 20, June 30 and July 7 were drawn by the Lottery as winners of those respective prizes.
Those documents include letters of certification of the drawings from independent auditors from the Charleston accounting firm of Suttle & Stalnaker.
The Governor’s Office has not yet responded to a Freedom of Information request for all written documentation for the process and procedures used to contact sweepstakes winners, including at which point winners who cannot be contacted are passed over for alternates.
The Governor’s Office also has not responded to a request to have an HD Media reporter observe the process for contacting winners.
Flight logs for the state’s King Air plane show that Justice flew to various locations June 30 and July 7 to present prizes to sweepstakes winners.
On June 30, Justice flew from Charleston to Morgantown, where he presented a check to that week’s $1 million winner, then flew to Lewisburg.
On July 6, the state plane flew from Charleston to Lewisburg, stayed at that airport overnight, and then on July 7 flew Justice to Clarksburg and then on to Charleston. Justice on that day presented luxury pickup trucks to sweepstakes winners in Fairmont and Clendenin.
During his July 8 briefing, Justice said he drove to the winners’ locations, saying, “We traveled a lot of miles, I can tell you that.”
He added, “We left Fairmont and drove to Clendenin to see a young man whose name is William Harris.”
According to the flight logs from the Department of Administration’s Aviation Division, Justice also traveled on the state plane June 4, June 9, June 16, June 22 and June 25.
On each of those flights, Justice boarded and deplaned in Lewisburg, with the exception of the June 16 itinerary, when he boarded in Lewisburg and deplaned in Beckley.
On March 1, Justice settled a lawsuit filed by Isaac Sponaugle contending that Justice was failing to comply with a state constitutional requirement that the governor reside in Charleston by agreeing to abide by the constitution.
“Per the terms of the settlement, Justice said he intends to live in Charleston ‘consistent with the definition of “reside” in the Supreme Court of Appeals’ opinion,’” the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported at the time.
The Governor’s Office did not respond to an inquiry regarding why Justice is using the state plane to fly to and from Lewisburg, where he has his primary residence, if he is residing in Charleston.
The Aviation Division billed the Governor’s Office $16,009 for the use of the state airplane in June through July 7, including $3,696 for the two flight itineraries when Justice flew to present awards to sweepstakes winners.
According to the National Governors Association, West Virginia is one of 17 states conducting vaccination incentive sweepstakes.
In at least two of those states, California and Ohio, the prize drawings have been televised live.