Billionaire Governor Subsidies

This Oct. 1, 2019 photo shows a farm house on a farm owned by the family of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice near Lewisburg, W.Va. Justice Farms of North Carolina raked in tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars under a subsidy program President Donald Trump set up to help farmers hurt by his trade war with China. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

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 U.S. trade war with China.

There is no evidence Gov. 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.

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 Donald 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 U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, have called for tighter oversight on where the taxpayer funds are funneled.

“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.

Justice on Thursday told reporters he wasn’t aware of the payments and said many other farms also received money from the aid package. His comments came after a fundraiser for his reelection that was headlined by Donald Trump, Jr. and held at a lavish resort Justice owns called The Greenbrier.

“They got the exact goodness that I got, in this situation,” Justice said of the other farms, according to an audio recording posted online by a reporter for Ogden Newspapers.

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.

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