CHARLESTON, W.Va. (CN) - Senate Democrats filed suit against West Virginia's Republican Governor Jim Justice on Tuesday, claiming the newly announced senatorial candidate has refused to hand over public records regarding his schedule.
The lawsuit, filed in Kanawha County Circuit Court, comes after Diana Astiz, research director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, filed a Freedom of Information Act request on April 13 seeking the governor's records of all scheduled official meetings involving his chief of staff, deputy chief of staff and general counsel.
The Democrats seek to show voters Justice's continued apathy to his position since the Associated Press revealed that he spent little time at the statehouse in 2019. State Senator Craig Blair, a Republican, notably told the AP that Justice spends less time at the statehouse than any governor he's ever seen.
"The governor may understandably desire to avoid another round of similar criticism," the suit states. "But he is the chief executive of the state and has the duty to ensure that its laws are faithfully executed."
Elected in 2017, Justice was once the wealthiest man in the state after inheriting a coal mining business from his father. He also owns West Virginia staples such as the Greenbriar luxury resort, although he stepped down from all executive positions in 2017.
Justice's office denied Astiz's FOIA request on April 20, saying the calendar and notes the DSCC sought regarding his schedule are inaccurate logs of his meetings that change daily. The lawsuit states that the office's excuses have no legal backbone.
"The governor's office provided no adequate justification for this refusal," the complaint states. " Instead, it cited exemptions that do not apply to the requested records and cases from other jurisdictions which do not track West Virginia law."
The denial letter asserts that the requested records are exempt from disclosure because they are personal rather than public information. The Democrats contends that even if some of the records they seek are exempt, though they believe none are, the office should have redacted the exemptions rather than denying the full request.
Justice threw his hat in the ring for Democratic U.S. Senator Joe Manchin's seat in late April. Manchin has yet to announce whether he will seek reelection for the vital seat that could shift the balance of the Senate, which currently has a 51-49 Democratic majority.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, through Astiz, is asking the court to order the governor's office to release the records soon as voters turn their attention to the 2024 election.
"Time is of the essence in obtaining the requested information, as voters will have the opportunity to support or reject Governor Justice's Senate bid within the next year," the suit states. "West Virginia voters have a right to know the information about the Governor's official meetings that Plaintiff requested."
Justice won the West Virginia governorship as a Democrat in 2016 before switching parties in 2017 during a rally in Huntington hosted by then-President Donald Trump. Over his two terms in office, Justice has passed legislation appeasing liberals, including a "rich man tax" and protections for funding for health and education, while remaining supportive of the fossil fuel industry.
He signed the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act into law in 2020, which First Amendment advocates claim creates felony offenses for protests targeting the oil and gas industry. The law, which forbids protesting on private property, was created in response to protests against pipeline construction on indigenous lands and environmental reserves.
Justice will face off against anti-tax advocate Congressman Alex Mooney in the Republican Senate primary next May.
Source: Courthouse News Service