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GREENBRIER OWNER GETS $1 MILLION FROM STATE


Publication: CHARLESTON DAILY MAIL
Published: Friday, February 11, 2011
Page: 1A
Byline: JARED HUNT DAILY MAIL CAPITOL REPORTER


The state has made good on its promise to give Greenbrier resort owner Jim Justice $1 million for his 2010 PGA golf tournament.


Justice was presented with a grant Tuesday by acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and state Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette during a quietly assembled gathering in the governor's office.


Unlike other grant presentations or public events, there was no press release or media advisory from either the Commerce Department or the governor's office beforehand. The Daily Mail learned of the payment by using the State Auditor's Web-based VISTA information system.


The $1 million grant caused a swirl of controversy last year when then-Gov. Joe Manchin tried to push through a supplemental appropriation bill containing the funding on the last day of the July special legislative session. At the time, lawmakers had been called to Charleston to create a special election to fill Robert Byrd's U.S. Senate seat.


The money for The Greenbrier Classic already had been inserted in the fiscal year 2011 budget, which was passed by the Legislature early last year as part of a $2.8 million economic development appropriation for the Commerce Department.


However, sources have said that then-Commerce Secretary Kelley Goes was concerned at the time that the money might not have been properly allocated to the right account within her department. It was her office's opinion that they would need to seek approval from lawmakers before the money could be paid.


That led to the supplemental appropriation request in the special session, meant to OK the transfer of money from one government account to another.


Manchin asked legislators to suspend the House's constitutional rules requiring the bill be read three times before passage, but House Republicans balked when they realized what the appropriation was for.


They argued that taxpayer money should not be used to fund a golf tournament.


House leaders agreed to remove the grant from the final version of the supplemental appropriation bill prior to the end of the session.


Greenbrier owner Jim Justice, himself a Republican, blasted the House Republican leadership for removing the grant funding from the bill.


"It was the biggest economic impact to ever hit the state, and the state wasn't even in the game," he told state leaders at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce's Business Summit in White Sulphur Springs last August.


At the time, Justice was also quoted in the Saturday Gazette-Mail as saying he had called Manchin and told him, "Forget it. I don't need it."


Many lawmakers figured that would be the end of the $1 million grant idea, but members of the Manchin administration said they remained committed to seeing the money paid.


"Money was approved during regular session for support of The Greenbrier as a major employer and economic driver in Greenbrier County, including assisting with the PGA golf event," Manchin's legislative director, Jim Pitrolo, said in August.


"The governor still intends to honor that pledge when the foundation receives its nonprofit status."


Newly appointed state Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette eventually signed off on the grant agreement Jan. 31, according to paperwork obtained from State Auditor Glen Gainer's office.


Requests for comment from the state Commerce Department concerning the matter went unanswered Thursday. It was unclear whether the earlier concerns had been resolved within the department.


Tomblin spokeswoman Jacqueline Proctor said the governor's office was just following through with an item that was included in this year's budget.


"It was in the budget that was passed last year by the Legislature, and it was just recently presented now," Proctor said. "We're just following through on what was already put in writing."


Regardless of why the money is now being distributed, the grant is again being criticized.


"The taxpayers do not expect their hard-earned money to be given to a golf tournament," said House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha.


"I think it was clear that by not adopting the bill that was made during the last legislative session, we made clear that the Legislature did not approve of this.


"I heard from many, many people after the special session who were very outraged by it," he said. "I would have thought that the administration would have received that message loudly and clearly but apparently not."


Armstead also said the timing of the payment - months after the event took place - results in it not having the economic development effect of other investments.


In a telephone interview Thursday, Justice explained that the money is not going to the golf tournament, but rather to the Old White Charities nonprofit. That organization is responsible for distributing money to the 150 charities that benefited from last year's tournament.


Justice had pledged to raise $3 million for the charities during the event, and that pledge included the money he anticipated receiving from the state.


"This came down to the fact that we had pledged $3 million to the charities and this was the million that was the shortfall," he said. "When we got the final dollars all in, basically we were a million short.


"What I did, I made that up out of my pockets and this (grant) reimbursed that."


Justice said he was caught up in the heat of the moment when he originally told Manchin to keep the money and had changed his mind since then.


"I was really upset with them and said keep the money," he said. "But really and truly, at the end of the day, all that I was accomplishing was letting them keep the money that was going to some charitable good in our state that would have hurt someone else - that was not a good decision on my part."


Justice also pointed out that the state collected $1.6 million alone from sales taxes during the seven-day event. He said the state received well more than it paid out.


He said that doesn't count the positive exposure the state received in the media during the event.


"I know advertising," he said. "I'm telling you if you were to go out and buy the advertising that we were able to do for the state, I'll bet you it would have cost $500 million because our state was seen in 20 countries and a bazillion publications.


"Just echo the words that (CBS sportscaster) Jim Nantz said last year - he said, 'We're broadcasting from the great state of West Virginia.'


"Well, what's that worth? When on a national scale do we get called that that often: the Great State of West Virginia? Normally they're telling bad jokes about us."


Contact writer Jared Hunt at jared.hunt@dailymail.com or 304-348-5148.


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