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The Billionaire Governor Who’s Been Sued Dozens of Times for Millions in Unpaid Bills

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Raymond Dye had a buildup of blood behind his left eye that prevented him from seeing. David Polk had an abnormal heartbeat, and his wife had high cholesterol. Roger Wriston’s wife had a bad back.

All the men had worked for a collection of coal companies owned by Gov. Jim Justice and his family, which had pledged to provide health insurance after the miners retired. Last year, though, the retirees learned that those firms had stopped paying their premiums. And as a result, their coverage had been terminated. Polk skipped doctor appointments.

“I know that waiting on medical treatment can do irreparable harm to my health,” he later said in a legal filing, “but I cannot afford to pay the bills.”

The expenses for the aging retirees, compounded by decades of work in southern West Virginia’s coal mines, were often costly. At one point, Wriston and his wife ended up with a bill for $12,367.76, another court filing said.

“I don’t think it’s fair what they’re doing to someone who worked their whole life,” Wriston’s wife, Tammy, said in an interview.

About 150 retired miners around West Virginia were making a similar discovery. So the United Mine Workers of America, the same miners’ union that had endorsed Justice’s election as governor in 2016, went to court last year and asked a federal judge to force the Justice companies to pay.

Lawyers for Justice’s companies initially opposed the union’s request for such an order, arguing the miners had not followed proper procedures for appealing a denial of health-benefit claims. Then, the companies settled, promising to clear up the matter and ensure benefits were provided.

“We’ve dealt with them a lot over the years, with people’s benefits being on and off,” said Josh West, a UMWA district representative. “That’s just the way the Justices have done business.”

As he runs for reelection, Jim Justice, a billionaire and the state’s richest man, frequently touts his experience as a businessman, saying that his long career in coal and other industries makes him uniquely suited for the role of the state’s chief executive. When he’s been asked about lawsuits over unpaid bills, the governor has emphasized that he and his companies always pay what they owe.

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But a ProPublica review found that, over the last three decades, Justice’s constellation of companies has been involved in more than 600 lawsuits spanning more than two dozen states — including many filed by workers, vendors, business partners and government agencies, all alleging they weren’t paid. Often, similar cases were filed in multiple jurisdictions, as lawyers for plaintiffs tried to chase down a Justice company’s assets to settle debts.

Among the plaintiffs: a mining equipment company in Virginia, a farm machinery dealer in South Carolina, a bank in Maryland, an insurance company in New York, state tax collectors in Kentucky, and even lawyers and accountants hired by the Justice companies to represent them. Coal miners working for Justice companies have filed at least a half-dozen suits to collect money they said was due to them when they were laid off without legally required warnings or when their paychecks bounced.

To date, parties have won judgments or forced settlements worth more than $128 million in cases against the Justice empire. That’s significantly higher than what has been previously reported.

Last year, Forbes documented $10 million in payments that courts had ordered Justice companies to make to suppliers, workers and government entities since 2016. The publication also noted a pending $60 million civil case. But ProPublica examined legal records dating back to the start of Justice’s tenure as CEO of his family’s companies, representing the most complete accounting yet of how the corporate empire overseen by the governor often forces those it does business with to sue to get what they are owed.

In multiple cases, plaintiffs had to go back to court to try to collect after either winning a case against a Justice company or settling with the governor’s empire. More than a dozen suits have been filed against Justice companies since Justice took office in January 2017, and several name the governor as a defendant.

“He does not pay his bills. I know that very well,” said Will Brownlow, president of New London Tobacco Market Inc., which last September won a $35 million ruling in what appears to be the largest courtroom loss for Justice’s empire.

Brownlow has been fighting Justice companies in court for more than eight years in a dispute over unpaid royalties on coal that Justice was supposed to — but did not — mine in eastern Kentucky.

The governor’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and Justice, through his private attorney, declined to be interviewed. A representative for Justice’s companies also declined to respond to a detailed list of questions for this story. Justice’s reelection campaign did not respond to an inquiry but instead sent an email blast to supporters, preemptively attacking the story, its author and ProPublica. It dismissed a list of detailed questions as “issues that have been reported on for more than a decade.”

As recently as last month, though, a federal judge found Justice to be personally liable for $6.9 million in damages for unpaid fees for the use of a coal shipping terminal in Newport News, Virginia. Lawyers for Justice and one of his companies had argued that they didn’t owe the fees.

Justice did not respond to a letter sent to his home, but he has spoken publicly about the debt skirmishes, as his political opponents have branded him a billionaire scofflaw.

The governor often blames the recent major economic downturn in the coal industry. While many of the nation’s major producers have filed for bankruptcy protection, though, Justice notes his family hasn’t used that route to try to evade liabilities. Indeed, the vast majority of lawsuits against Justice companies over unpaid debts do involve the coal business. Those have resulted in millions of dollars in damages for missed coal shipments and delinquent royalty payments.

But ProPublica’s review shows that some lawsuits over coal debt date back to the 1990s, well before the downturn of the last decade. Moreover, the debts are hardly limited to coal; they span Justice’s business empire. Tens of thousands for an irrigation system at a farming operation in South Carolina. Hundreds of thousands for flood cleanup work at The Greenbrier resort’s golf courses. Millions for a new helicopter.

A core of Justice’s defense is to blame the Russian conglomerate Mechel, which purchased a large chunk of Justice’s coal holdings in 2009 and then, according to court filings, ran up big bills in disputes with miners, contractors and vendors. The Justice family reacquired those holdings in 2015.

“Along the way, you’d walk the streets and somebody would yell at you, ‘Why don’t you pay your taxes?’” Justice said during an August 2018 press conference. “It was tough, because I knew already that I had paid Russian taxes. Not my taxes, Russian taxes.”

Justice said at the time that there were $30 million in vendor bills owed by Mechel, “some that we had no idea if it was real or not real.” Mechel did not respond to a request for comment.

But few of the major, high-dollar cases in ProPublica’s review were, in fact, related to Mechel. More importantly, legal records show that Justice companies agreed to accept many liabilities in the buyback.

The legal entanglements echo those of Justice’s Republican ally, President Donald Trump, who himself has been sued thousands of times over his business career, often by aggrieved vendors. Like the president, the governor has said that at the start of his term he turned over day-to-day control of his businesses to his adult children. But he still retains an interest in 120 corporate entities and continues to guide his empire.

For some plaintiffs, chasing a state’s top elected official or his companies for payment has proved uncomfortable. Nine months after Justice took office, Citizens Asset Finance sued the governor and two of his companies for more than $2.5 million for defaulting on a helicopter loan.

“I do a lot of financial institution work, and banks want to get paid, certainly, but they do not want to raise public ire,” William Thorsness, a lawyer for the bank, told a federal judge in New York during a June 2018 hearing. “Suing a sitting governor is not something they take joy in.”

Justice Aviation filed a counterclaim, blaming the bank for a delay and lower price when it sold the aircraft. Justice also complained at a press conference about mechanical problems with the helicopter. The parties later settled the case with Justice Aviation agreeing to pay a little more than $2.5 million.

Republican and Democratic candidates for governor have blasted Justice for his business empire’s long roster of debt collection cases. “I know what it’s like to make payroll every week, without a string of lawsuits and unpaid bills,” Woody Thrasher, Justice’s former Commerce Secretary and now a Republican primary opponent, told a local television station in March.

With the June 9 primary election approaching, Justice’s companies have recently moved to settle some major cases.

In early April, his coal operations reached a deal with the U.S. Department of Justice to pay more than $5 million in delinquent mine safety penalties, some of them dating back more than five years. Typically, fines for mine safety violations don’t result in lawsuits, but when Justice’s companies refused to pay the penalties imposed by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the federal government sued. Initially, the Justice companies had sought to have the case dismissed, saying the government wrongly filed it in federal court in Virginia, while the named defendants are incorporated in West Virginia.

“Their position has been and is that they pay what they owe,” said Christopher Pence, a lawyer who handled the mine safety case for Justice’s companies.

“A Bad Image for the Coal Industry”

Jim Justice took over his family’s coal business in 1993, after his father died. Nonpayment suits dogged operations from the start.

That year, two dozen miners alleged they weren’t paid wages and benefits owed to them, and the West Virginia labor department sued Bluestone Coal, the Justice family’s main company, on their behalf. The miners worked for Bluestone contractors, but state officials argued that Bluestone was responsible for paying the workers under state law. Ten of the miners settled their claims, while another 10 went to court and won. Bluestone argued it wasn’t responsible for the payments, but a judge entered a judgment against Bluestone in that matter, for $21,000. The cases of the remaining four miners were tossed by the court.

Three years later, authorities went after Justice’s company with a much more systemic claim: Bluestone had effectively cheated the state’s workers compensation program out of more than $5 million in premiums, state officials alleged. The lawsuit, filed by the state Bureau of Employment Programs, was part of a larger effort to force coal operators to shore up the program, which was hundreds of millions of dollars in the hole.

Like much of the industry, Bluestone used a web of small contracting firms to mine its coal, maintaining that those firms were responsible for paying into the workers compensation system.

But the state argued that Bluestone, like many coal companies, actually controlled its contractors, who had failed to pay millions in premiums. “Bluestone obtained the mining permits and had the right to sell coal that was mined,” the Charleston Gazette reported in September 2000. “In many cases, Bluestone also provided contractors with mining equipment, engineering plans and day-to-day management direction.”

Bluestone denied the claim and fought the lawsuit. And the election of a new business-friendly governor — a former coal executive backed by Justice and other coal operators — provided a temporary reprieve, as the new administration battled with labor unions in an attempt to get the cases dropped. But, in 2001, another candidate ousted the incumbent on a pledge to collect from Bluestone and the rest of the industry.

Mining companies quickly settled, but the deal with the new administration allowed them to avoid millions in accrued interest. Bluestone Coal ultimately paid $5.1 million, escaping $15.7 million in interest.

Justice’s wealth ballooned in 2009 when his family sold the company to Mechel, a Russian mining and metals firm, for $436 million in cash. The Justice family, however, still maintained unrelated mining properties in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. And the debt problems continued there, with suits over unpaid bills, late coal shipments and missed royalty payments.

The biggest of these cases was filed in 2012, after Justice’s Kentucky Fuel Corp. failed to mine coal at two sites it had leased, costing the coal owners their royalties.

The plaintiff, New London Tobacco Market, sued the mining company in federal court.

But the Justice companies fought the case for eight years, arguing that their contract only required them to mine the coal if it was commercially viable.

According to court records, Kentucky Fuel repeatedly refused to provide court-ordered financial documents, and Jay Justice, the governor’s son, even skipped a scheduled deposition in the case. In September 2019, a federal judge in Kentucky ruled in favor of the plaintiff, ordering Kentucky Fuel to pay more than $35 million — including $17 million in punitive damages.

In an interview, Brownlow, the owner of New London Tobacco, said that, when you add interest, his judgment against the Justice companies is worth more than $50 million. He regrets getting involved in the deal in the first place. “I probably wouldn’t do this again if I had it to do over again and knew what I know now,” he said.

In April, Kentucky Fuel lost a motion to reconsider the judgment. Justice’s company was also ordered to pay more than $1 million in legal fees to the plaintiffs, and his lawyers were sanctioned for filing the motion to reconsider in the first place. Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove admonished Justice’s companies.

“Nothing is fair unless decided in their favor,” he said. “Defendants began this litigation with the same opportunities for discovery and presentation of evidence as any other litigant, but they have squandered these opportunities with poor strategic decisions and contumacious, combative conduct.”

Kentucky Fuel, however, indicated in a court filing that it plans to appeal to a federal circuit court, and one of the company’s lawyers told a local paper the latest court ruling was “a terrible opinion.”

Even in a much-maligned industry, the practices of Justice’s companies have drawn attention. Some operators initially distanced themselves from him as he entered the political arena. Bob Murray, the controversial CEO of Murray Energy Corp., opposed Justice’s bid for governor, in part citing his financial troubles.

“I was aware of about 20 lawsuits against him for not paying his bills,” Murray told a crowd of Ohio County Republicans in 2015, according to a copy of his speech, “a bad image for the coal industry.”

From Russia With Debt

Justice, however, earned goodwill from miners in 2015, when he bought back Bluestone Coal from Mechel. The Russian firm had closed some mines and laid off employees, and now, as a political candidate and mine owner, Justice was pledging to put miners back to work.

The United Mine Workers of America endorsed him in the governor’s race in 2016, and its members appeared in a campaign ad supporting his bid. (Justice ran as a Democrat but switched his party affiliation to Republican during his first year in office.)

“Jim is one of the good coal operators,” union President Cecil Roberts said in the spot, warning voters not to believe negative campaign ads that mentioned unpaid bills. “Jim is keeping miners working while paying off debts run up by a bankrupt Russian company.”

The Russian deal has been an essential part of Justice’s public defense about his companies’ unpaid taxes or overdue bills. He has said repeatedly that Mechel operated his family’s coal holdings poorly, running up bills it didn’t pay and then threatening to walk away. As part of the buyback, Justice agreed to take on at least $140 million in liabilities, according to corporate filings from Mechel. “It takes time to fix everything and do it right,” Justice told Forbes last year, “and along the way you get people who are throwing rocks at you.”

Some of those people are Justice’s own coal miners.

After Justice’s election in 2016, dozens of miners sued coal companies Justice had bought back from Mechel. They alleged that these operations, while owned by the Russian firm, had laid off large numbers of miners — or closed mines altogether — without first issuing the 60-day notice required by federal law. The suits sought back pay and benefits for the workers who lost their jobs without warning.

“They knew the big layoff was coming, they just never warned anybody,” said Robert Boyd, a miner who worked at several of Bluestone’s surface mines for more than five years. Boyd said the abrupt layoffs left miners in a lurch. “We had food bills and house payments,” he said. “It was hard to survive.”

Lawyers for Justice’s companies initially tried to have such cases thrown out, arguing they were filed too late. A federal judge disagreed, and the companies ultimately settled, agreeing to pay the miners. The companies made initial payments, but they fell behind on an agreed-to schedule. The miners had to go back to court to force payment, sometimes more than once. By April 2019, the Justice companies had inked the last of its new deals to catch up on payments. The total for three cases came to more than $3 million, including hundreds of thousands in penalty payments to the miners.

“They waited and waited, and that’s why we got a bigger settlement,” Boyd said.

These cases are among a small number in ProPublica’s review where Justice companies have sought to buck debts incurred from the Mechel deal.

Take, for instance, the case of James River Equipment Virginia LLC. In 2013, the mining equipment company sued Justice Energy Company Inc. over a $150,000 unpaid invoice from when Mechel owned the company. A judge issued a default ruling, and debt collection efforts continued once Justice was again the owner.

But, for three months, no one from Justice Energy or the Justice family showed up for hearings scheduled before a federal magistrate and a district judge. In 2016, a federal judge finally held Justice Energy in contempt and fined the company $1.2 million, payable to the U.S. government.

Justice Energy appealed the fine, arguing that it shouldn’t be penalized for missing hearings and not responding to legal matters that it inherited from Mechel. A federal appeals court, however, disagreed, twice upholding the fine.

Stiffing the Lawyers

While past media reports — including those by NPR and Forbes — have noted two cases where Justice companies have failed to pay even their own lawyers, ProPublica found at least seven additional instances in which Justice companies were sued by law firms that had represented them. Taken together, the string of cases shows a pattern: A Justice company fails to pay a bill and is sued over the debt. Lawyers are hired to fight the collection suit. They often lose or settle, and then have to sue their Justice-related clients to get their fees.

Phelps Dunbar, a regional law firm in the Gulf Coast, represented one of Justice’s companies in a three-year case involving a coal shipping dispute. The firm “engaged in extensive discovery, protracted motion practice,” and briefed multiple federal appeals and “expended considerable time and effort,” it alleged in a debt collection suit. But Justice’s company didn’t pay. A lawsuit in federal court in Louisiana listed unpaid invoices totaling nearly $410,000.

The two sides settled days before a scheduled trial in 2016. Exact terms were not disclosed.

Another law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell, also sued for nonpayment, after it helped settle a dispute that followed the buyback of Bluestone coal holdings from Mechel. The firm said that it was owed a percentage of the holdings in the settlement, but that Justice’s companies had “refused to pay anything.” Under its representation agreement, the law firm first took the case to arbitration, where a panel determined that the Justice companies owed $3.3 million. When the companies still didn’t pay, the firm sought approval of the arbitration ruling from a New York court in May 2016.

A week after the court filing, the Justice companies “promptly paid the full amount” without filing any sort of response with the court, according to a notice of voluntary dismissal filed by the law firm.

Sometimes, it appears that the Justice companies stop paying their lawyers in the middle of a case, a move that leads to delays for everyone involved.

That’s what happened in the case of New London Tobacco, the mining contract dispute that resulted in the $35 million judgment. After a year on the case, Justice company attorney, Billy Shelton, filed a motion to withdraw. He said that he “has been unable to obtain documents and information from his client necessary to properly and adequately prepare and provide a defense.” He also noted that Kentucky Fuel had “failed to pay counsel for recent legal services in this matter.”

Three months later, Shelton’s law firm sued seven Justice companies over $85,000 in unpaid legal fees. When the companies didn’t answer the suit, a local judge approved a default judgment against them. Three years later, Shelton told NPR that the lawsuit was “the result of a misunderstanding” that occurred when the right Justice executive wasn’t aware of the fee dispute.

In all, the Justice companies employed seven different law firms over the course of the New London Tobacco case.

The Money Chase

In court filings and interviews, parties in several nonpayment cases against Justice companies say that they have had to go to extraordinary lengths to collect debts on payments as obligatory as local taxes.

By the summer of 2017, one Justice company owed unpaid property and mining-related taxes to Knott County in Kentucky, records show. The county filed suit against Kentucky Fuel to collect what was owed, plus interest and late fees. Over the course of two years, an $870,000 tax bill had ballooned to nearly $2 million. The levies, officials argued, were desperately needed for, among other things, school funding.

But even after a judge ordered Kentucky Fuel to pay, attorneys for the county resorted to seeking garnishments in order to intercept money being paid to Kentucky Fuel from local mining contractors. After the county collected nearly $150,000 through the garnishments, Kentucky Fuel settled for about $1.6 million, according to county attorney Timothy C. Bates.

“We’re an impoverished area, and it most certainly made it difficult with the several years that they didn’t pay,” said former Judge Executive Zach Weinberg, who was the county’s top elected official at the time. “It was definitely a hurt for the county.”

Even winning a lawsuit against Justice companies or forcing a legal settlement doesn’t always result in prompt payment. Plaintiffs often have to go back to court to enforce settlements. When that fails, they sometimes file their judgments in other jurisdictions where the Justice companies have property or other assets, then put liens on that property or prepare to force a sale.

The case of Monsanto Co. is instructive.

In October 2018, the agrochemical giant said Justice Family Farms hadn’t paid a bill for more than $800,000 of seed.

Court records for the case, filed in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, where Monsanto is based, show that the parties quickly worked out a settlement. Justice Family Farms would make six installment payments.

A year went by, and the company made just one payment, for $25,000, records show. Even that was made two months late. Monsanto lawyers went back to court. U.S. District Judge John A. Ross ruled that Justice Family Farms was in breach of the deal. Not only had the company just paid a fraction of what it owed, he noted, but it had failed to respond to the legal proceedings entirely.

Five months later, when Justice Family Farms still hadn’t paid, lawyers for Monsanto asked Ross to provide them with a certified copy of his judgment, so that they could try to collect the money in Virginia, where the Justice farming company has its primary business office.

Monsanto’s attorney declined to comment, and it’s unclear from court records whether the Justice company ever paid.

A Maryland bank used the same tactic to compel payment in another case, after winning a nearly $1.5 million judgment against a different Justice firm, Justice Farms of North Carolina LLC. The company had defaulted on payments on a year-old series of business loans. The bank sued in late 2017 but payment wasn’t resolved until last year, after the financial institution began filing the judgment in other jurisdictions, chasing down the Justice family for its money.

The approach is not always successful, though, and it can be costly and time consuming for plaintiffs.

In December 2017, an insurance company won a nearly $850,000 judgment in New York against Justice’s Southern Coal Corp., which had failed to pay workers’ compensation and general liability premiums. The insurance company transferred the judgment to West Virginia, where the coal company’s bank accounts and other assets were located.

The West Virginia court ordered federal marshals to investigate, but they found bank accounts empty or closed. The district judge, in turn, appointed a special commissioner in January 2019 to probe Southern Coal’s finances further. The inquiry went on for nearly a year, until the commissioner ordered Jill Justice, the governor’s daughter and a Southern Coal board member, to appear for a deposition. Southern Coal settled the matter this past February, but court records did not make clear how much was paid.

Corporate Shell Game

In recent years, several plaintiffs have argued that Justice, his companies and his family operate what amounts to a complicated corporate shell game, moving money from one part of the business empire to another, all to avoid big debts, costly liabilities, even fines.

Last year, after the appeals court upheld her contempt ruling, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger pressed Justice Energy to pay the $1.2 million fine in the case of James River, the mining equipment company that sued over unpaid invoices.

U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart investigated Justice Energy’s finances, examining records and interviewing corporate officials. He found what he called the shell of a company: Justice Energy doesn’t own a mine or any coal reserves, or even any mining equipment. Miners and supervisors aren’t employed by Justice Energy.

“While Justice Energy Company Inc. may be a corporation, it is, in reality, an alter ego and shell controlled by the Justices through their other entities and has no real separate existence under the law,” Stuart wrote. “I believe that those who control Justice Energy Company Inc. have a legal obligation and the ultimate legal responsibility to make sure that the contempt sanction is paid.”

The federal prosecutor later filed a motion for formal permission to “pierce the corporate veil,” a legal maneuver that would force Justice and his family themselves to pay the fine. Justice’s lawyers never filed a response. Instead, the next day, Justice Energy agreed to a payment plan. (Bluestone Resources, another of Justice’s companies, would pay the fine.)

Now, others are echoing Stuart’s findings as they seek to pull back the curtain on Justice’s business operations.

New London Tobacco, concerned that it wouldn’t be able to collect any eventual judgment in its case against Justice’s Kentucky Fuel, filed a second lawsuit while its first suit played out in court.

Specifically, New London Tobacco alleged that the Justices transferred property and other assets in anticipation of losing the debt collection case. In one instance, the suit says, about $1.8 million from the sale of coal leases was “diverted” by wire transfer to Jay Justice’s personal brokerage account at Goldman Sachs. Citing federal racketeering laws, New London Tobacco alleges that the Justices are “members of an association-in-fact enterprise” — a term originally intended to allow the targeting of organized crime.

“The business strategy,” New London Tobacco said in its lawsuit, “includes incurring debts that they do not intend to pay and using delay and forcing creditors to bring unnecessary litigation, so that the members of the Enterprise can avoid full payment of their debts.”

Lawyers for Justice companies have sought to have the case dismissed, but the matter has been stayed, pending resolution of New London Tobacco’s original case against Justice entities.

Another plaintiff, a Canadian steel mill, sued Justice’s Southern Coal Sales Corp. — along with a dozen Justice family companies — as it sought damages over missed coal shipments. The company, Essar Steel Algoma, alleged that Southern Coal was effectively drained by other Justice entities to protect it from litigation. The subsequent financial weakness “rendered it purposefully judgment proof,” Algoma’s lawyers said.

Justice’s attorneys denied the claim, saying that Algoma has “a gross misunderstanding of how affiliate entities operate in the coal industry.”

“Indisputably, it is an owner’s prerogative to infuse capital into his own company or companies to ‘keep them afloat’ and the coal industry, in particular, experiences ups and downs that require such support.”

This month, a federal judge in New York denied a motion by the Justice companies to dismiss the case, rejecting what she called an “everyone is doing it” defense.

Meanwhile, the Justice companies are filing lawsuits of their own.

In March, they sued an equipment supplier they said reneged on an oral settlement to resolve a $9.4 million judgment against one of the family’s firms.

That case was reminiscent of a suit the Justice empire filed last year against the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement over $4.2 million in unpaid strip-mining penalties and fees. Justice’s companies claim that they had a verbal deal to resolve the matter for $250,000. But, they say, OSMRE backed out. And fearing a government collection action, the Justices sued to try to enforce that verbal deal. “We don’t want to have to go to court to get the government to do the right thing and live up to its end of the bargain,” Jay Justice, the governor’s son and CEO of the mining operations, said in a press release, “but we can’t sit back and let the government take advantage of our good faith efforts to resolve this matter.”

Last week, a federal judge in Virginia tossed the Justice companies’ case.

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How an Inmate Made a Big Math Discovery in Prison | Number Theory

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an inmate's letter to a mathematician

Marta Cerruti

  • A new number theory paper comes from three academic researchers and, astonishingly, one prison inmate.
  • Number theory is full of complex problems with applications in cryptography and more.
  • The paper is on continued fractions, which are a way to approximate irrational numbers.

Earlier this year, a first-time academic author published a new mathematical study in the journal Research in Number Theory. The twist? The researcher, Christopher Havens, is also serving a 25-year sentence in the Washington Department of Correction following a murder conviction.

Inmates often send requests to publishers and publications, because access to specific books and even entire genres of books are extremely limited in prisons. The guidelines are byzantine, and prisoner rights organizations hold up restricted access to books as an example of a violation of the First Amendment.

It’s in this context that chemist and professor Marta Cerruti’s partner received a request from Havens for an annual subscription to the Princeton-based journal Annals of Mathematics. And it happens that Cerruti’s father is a number theorist who was willing to take a chance on Havens, who was trying to teach himself calculus and number theory without any access to a qualified teacher.

“To test him, he gave Havens a problem to solve,” Cerruti recently wrote in The Conversation. “In return, my father received a 120-centimetre-long piece of paper in the mail, and on it was a long and complicated formula. [T]o his surprise, the results were correct!”

Umberto Cerruti, who was a professor of mathematics at the University of Torino, Italy, is one of the other authors on Havens’s paper, “Linear fractional transformations and nonlinear leaping convergents of some continued fractions.”

Number theory is the study of integers and what integers can do. It’s part of discrete mathematics, which examines countable numbers like integers rather than continuous topics like calculus. (The beginning steps of learning something like a Riemann sum are pretty discrete, but the goal of this exercise is to eventually approach infinity, which is continuous.)

Continued fractions are a fun special case of, for example, irrational numbers like π that can be represented with complicated fractions that also repeat. Instead of a series of digits that continue after a decimal point, they’re fractions that have more fractions in their denominators. These get smaller and smaller and eventually converge into approximations of the irrational numbers they can represent.

“There's no such thing as a closest rational approximation to an irrational number,” math writer Evelyn Lamb explained in Scientific American. “By increasing the denominators of our fractions, we can get as close as we want.”

In their paper, Havens, Cerruti, and two other mathematicians study a linear transformation of an infinite continued fraction and draw conclusions from their findings. Then they apply those findings back to (relatively speaking) famous continued fractions.

Havens told Cerruti he went through his prison’s Intensive Transition Program:

“It's designed to effectively aid you into 'taking your head from your backside.' This was my schedule. Eat, math, remove my head from my backside, brush, rinse, repeat. It was an important time in my life."

With a scholarly publication under his belt and about 16 more years in his sentence, Havens has an opportunity to continue to grow his mathematical talents—if he can keep finding the right pen pals.


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GOP Gov. DeWine Urges People To Wear Masks: ‘This Is About Loving Your Fellow Human Being’

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Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) pointed out on Tuesday night that wearing a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic is a matter of basic empathy, not politics.

“Look, this is about loving your fellow human being,” the governor said during an interview with CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. “This is an instruction as old as the Bible. You’re supposed to love your fellow man and woman, and that’s what we’re really doing.”

“I think that’s the message, that you’re not wearing it so much for yourself as you are wearing it for that person that you’re going to come in contact with,” he added.

The Republican governor’s remarks echoed North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum’s (R) plea for people refusing to wear facial coverings to “dial up your empathy and your understanding” last week.

Their push for wearing masks stands in contrast with many right-wingers’ disdain for the protective measure, most notably that of President Donald Trump, who mocked a reporter on Tuesday for donning a mask during a press briefing.

“You want to be politically correct,” Trump said.

Watch DeWine below:

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1 public comment
47 minutes ago
Even mildly inconveniencing yourself to help others is kind of the opposite of GOP theology, unfortunately
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Americans try to leave Brazil ahead of coronavirus travel ban

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1 public comment
12 hours ago
Can we have them trapped for hours in crowded lines to help spread it like they did with the European ban?
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Trump Team Killed Rule Designed To Protect Health Workers From Pandemic Like COVID-19


When President Trump took office in 2017, his team stopped work on new federal regulations that would have forced the health care industry to prepare for an airborne infectious disease pandemic such as COVID-19. That decision is documented in federal records reviewed by NPR.

"If that rule had gone into effect, then every hospital, every nursing home would essentially have to have a plan where they made sure they had enough respirators and they were prepared for this sort of pandemic," said David Michaels, who was head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration until January 2017.

There are still no specific federal regulations protecting health care workers from deadly airborne pathogens such as influenza, tuberculosis or the coronavirus. This fact hit home during the last respiratory pandemic, the H1N1 outbreak in 2009. Thousands of Americans died and dozens of health care workers got sick. At least four nurses died.

Studies conducted after the H1N1 crisis found voluntary federal safety guidelines designed to limit the spread of airborne pathogens in medical facilities often weren't being followed. There were also shortages of personal protective equipment.

"H1N1 made it very clear OSHA did not have adequate standards for airborne transmission and contact transmission, and so we began writing a standard to do that," Michaels said.

HIV/AIDS rule set the standard for protecting workers

OSHA experts were confident new airborne infectious disease regulations would make hospitals and nursing homes safer when future pandemics hit. That's because similar rules had already been created for bloodborne pathogens such as Ebola and hepatitis.

Those rules, implemented during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, forced the health care industry to adopt safety plans and buy more equipment designed to protect staff and patients.

But making a new infectious disease regulation, affecting much of the American health care system, is time-consuming and contentious. It requires lengthy consultation with scientists, doctors and other state and federal regulatory agencies as well as the nursing home and hospital industries that would be forced to implement the standard.

Federal records reviewed by NPR show OSHA went step by step through that process for six years, and by early 2016 the new infectious disease rule was ready. The Obama White House formally added it to a list of regulations scheduled to be implemented in 2017.

Then came the presidential election.

An emphasis on deregulation

In the spring of 2017, the Trump team formally stripped OSHA's airborne infectious disease rule from the regulatory agenda. NPR could find no indication the new administration had specific policy concerns about the infectious disease rules.

Instead, the decision appeared to be part of a wider effort to cut regulations and bureaucratic oversight.

"Earlier this year we set a target of adding zero new regulatory costs onto the American economy," Trump said in December 2017. "As a result, the never-ending growth of red tape in America has come to a sudden, screeching and beautiful halt."

The impact on the federal effort to protect health care workers from diseases such as COVID-19 was immediate.

"The infectious disease standard was put on the back burner. Work stopped," said Michaels, now a professor at George Washington University.

A deadly escalation of the H1N1 crisis

This spring, hospitals and nursing homes found themselves facing much of the same crisis they experienced during the H1N1 outbreak, with many facilities unprepared and unequipped. Only this time the scale was larger and deadlier.

The federal government reports that at least 43,000 front-line health care workers have gotten sick, many infected, while caring for COVID-19 patients in facilities where personal protective equipment was being rationed.

"Even just a few months ago, I couldn't have imagined that I would have been on a Zoom call reading out the names of registered nurses who have died on the front lines of a pandemic," said Bonnie Castillo, who heads the National Nurses United union.

"The memorial was not only about grief. It was also about anger."

OSHA's infectious disease rule debated in Washington

Castillo said Congress should immediately implement the infectious disease regulations shelved by the Trump administration as an emergency rule before a second wave of the coronavirus hits.

"Which obviously would mandate that employers have the highest level of PPE, not the lowest," she said.

Democrats in the House of Representatives passed a bill in mid-May that would do so, but the Republican-controlled Senate has blocked the measure, and the White House still opposes the rules.

The Trump administration hasn't responded to NPR's repeated inquiries about the infectious disease rule. But in a briefing call with lawmakers this month, the current head of OSHA, Loren Sweatt, argued enough rules are already in place to protect workers.

"We have mandatory standards related to personal protective equipment and bloodborne pathogens and sanitation standards," Sweatt said in a recording provided to NPR. "We have existing standards that can address this area."

The hospital industry also opposes the new safety rules. Nancy Foster with the American Hospital Association said voluntary guidelines for airborne pandemics are adequate.

"You're right; they're not regulations, but they are the guidance that we want to follow," Foster said. "They set forth the expectation for infection control, so in a sense they're just like regulations."

But the infectious disease standard would have required the health care industry to do far more. It sets out specific standards for planning and training. It would also have forced facilities to stockpile personal protective equipment to handle "surges" of sick patients such as the ones seen with COVID-19.

NPR also found the lack of fixed regulations allowed the Trump administration to relax worker safety guidelines. Federal agencies did so repeatedly this spring as COVID-19 spread and shortages of personal protective equipment worsened.

As a consequence, hospitals could say they were meeting federal guidelines while requiring doctors and nurses to reuse masks and protective gowns after exposure to sick patients.

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White Woman Who Called Police On Black Man In Viral Video Says Her 'Entire Life Is Being Destroyed'

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Amy Cooper, the white woman who called the police on a black man whom she claimed was “threatening” her life as they argued about her dog in a viral video, says she wants to “publicly apologize to everyone” involved.

The man, Christian Cooper (no relation), recorded and posted a video on Facebook in which she told him she was calling the police “to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life” after he asked her to leash her dog in the Ramble, an area of Central Park in New York City where he was birdwatching, as park rules mandate.

“I’m not a racist,” Amy Cooper said in an interview with CNN published on Tuesday. “I did not mean to harm that man in any way.”

“I think I was just scared,” she told CNN. “When you’re alone in the Ramble, you don’t know what’s happening.”

“It’s not excusable, it’s not defensible,” she added.

Cooper’s LinkedIn profile lists her as “Head of Insurance Investment Solutions at Franklin Templeton.” The company put out a statement late Monday night saying that Cooper had been put on administrative leave.

“We take these matters very seriously, and we do not condone racism of any kind,” the firm said.

Later Tuesday afternoon, Franklin Templeton announced that Amy Cooper had been fired.

Amy Cooper told CNN that her “entire life is being destroyed right now” after the video went viral on social media.

“I’m taking a picture and calling the cops,” she tells Christian Cooper in the video after he tells her three times to stay away from him. “I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.”

“Please tell them whatever you like,” he replied.

She then takes out her phone and calls the police.

“There is an African-American man. I’m in Central Park,” Amy Cooper tells the operator as her dog squirms in its leash and yelps. “He is recording me and threatening myself and my dog.”

Her voice grows agitated as she speaks on the phone, saying again “I’m being threatened by a man in the Ramble. Please send the cops immediately!”

Christian Cooper told CNN he had recorded the exchange “because I thought it was important to document things.”

“Unfortunately we live in an era with things like Ahmaud Arbery, where black men are seen as targets,” he said. “This woman thought she could exploit that to her advantage, and I wasn’t having it.”

The New York City Police Department told CNN that neither Amy nor Christian Cooper were on location by the time deputies had arrived, and that no arrests were made.

Watch the video below:

Central Park this morning: This woman's dog is tearing through the plantings in the Ramble.ME: Ma'am, dogs in the…

Posted by Christian Cooper on Monday, May 25, 2020

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12 hours ago
I have trouble sympathizing with someone who did what could have resulted in another police murder, but it’s hard not to wonder how much of the outrage is fueled by people who want to draw a line between this and the smaller-scale racism which is so common in American life. Open Nextdoor and you’ll probably find half a dozen neighbors who could be her in the right circumstances.
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