Democrats sue for West Virginia GOP Gov. Jim Justice's calendar amid Senate run

Gov. Jim Justice speaks during an announcement for his campaign for U.S. Senate at The Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., on Thursday, April 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Chris Jackson)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The Democratic party's U.S. Senate campaign arm is asking a Charleston-based judge to order the release of the calendar of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican running to take over the seat held by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in 2024.

The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee filed a lawsuit against Justice's office Tuesday in Charleston-based Kanawha County Circuit Court in response to an April 13 rejection of public records pertaining to the state leader's schedule, according to court records.

“Jim Justice cannot hide his work schedule — or lack thereof — from West Virginians, and this is an area which is sure to receive further scrutiny in his nasty primary and in a court of law,” committee spokesperson David Bergstein said in a press release announcing the suit.

Justice, whose family owns dozens of companies and The Greenbrier luxury resort near the Virginia border, was the most wealthy man in all of West Virginia when elected governor in 2016. For two terms, he's been dogged by criticism that he’s rarely at the Statehouse and accused of being a “part-time governor." His office has been reticent to share his calendar, saying it isn't a true reflection of his work schedule.

Justice announced last month he was entering the 2024 race for U.S. Senate, joining a GOP primary where he will be pitted against U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney, who announced his run for Manchin's seat less than a week after his reelection to the House in November.

Manchin has not yet officially announced whether he will run for reelection in 2024. The senator had recruited Justice to run for governor as a Democrat before Justice switched to the GOP at a rally for former U.S. President Donald Trump during his first term.

Justice’s campaign quickly pushed back against the Democrats' suit on Tuesday, calling it nothing more than a political ploy. Justice campaign manager Roman Stauffer said the governor is “the frontrunner in this campaign for U.S. Senate.”

“The polling shows that he beats every other candidate,” Stauffer said in a statement. “Chuck Schumer and the Democrats are panicking and will do everything they can to prop up Alex Mooney, whom they know they can easily beat in the General Election.”

The lawsuit states that Justice's office has refused to produce “the most basic records from his time as Governor: lists of the official meetings scheduled for him and his most senior staff.” The committee is asking a judge to rule that the governor is violating public records law and to prohibit him from “withholding records without justification."

The suit comes after a 2019 analysis of seven months of Justice's calendar by The Associated Press revealed almost no meetings with his Cabinet and showed he was rarely at the Capitol. His schedule mostly showed him at photo ops or simply unaccounted for.

Justice's office had initially denied requests for the calendar from The AP and the Charleston Gazette-Mail under West Virginia’s open records law during Justice's first term, saying it was in draft format and not an accurate log of Justice’s appointments. They also claimed its release could put his security at risk, but eventually complied.

The campaign committee mentioned that reporting in its suit, saying “the Governor may understandably desire to avoid another round of similar criticism” by rejecting its request.

“But he is the chief executive of the State and has the duty to ensure that its laws are faithfully executed," the suit reads. "His Office’s refusal to produce the records sought is an open violation of (the Freedom of Information Act).”