- Prosecutors say Blankenship used `fear, intimidation' to rule
- West Virginia jury hears closing arguments in criminal trial
Former Massey Energy Co. Chief Executive Officer Donald Blankenship was accused of being the “kingpin” of a criminal conspiracy to evade mine safety laws at the site of a West Virginia explosion that killed 29 workers.
Blankenship “engaged in perpetual lawbreaking” by creating a corporate culture that encouraged cutting corners on safety to speed up coal production and leaving mines constantly understaffed, Booth Goodwin, a federal prosecutor, told jurors Tuesday in closing arguments in the former CEO’s criminal trial.
The trial caps the government’s five-year effort to hold Blankenship accountable for years of safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine, located about 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of Charleston, West Virginia. The April 2010 blast at the site was the worst U.S. mining disaster in more than 30 years.
“The plan Mr. Blankenship dictated to all his subordinates was designed to operate the Upper Big Branch mine as a lawless enterprise,” Goodwin told jurors. He accomplished that through a campaign of “fear, intimidation and propaganda,” the prosecutor added.
Blankenship, who didn’t testify in his own defense, disputes the government’s claims that he plotted to subvert safety laws so he could reap millions of dollars in compensation for meeting production targets.
During the trial, Blankenship’s lawyers pointed to memos in which the former CEO ordered subordinates to crack down on the number of regulatory violations at Upper Big Branch. The evidence showed the executive was “beating on people about violations,” William Taylor, an attorney for Blankenship, told jurors Tuesday.
“The government has not proven its case” on the conspiracy and securities-fraud charges, Taylor said.
Prosecutors have offered “no proof” that Don Blankenship agreed with others to circumvent safety laws for his own gain, the lawyer added.
The government produced records showing Blankenship made millions as Massey’s top executive, with pay and bonuses of more than $18 million in 2009 and $12 million in 2010. Those numbers are irrelevant to the charges against Blankenship even though prosecutors are pressing for a conviction “because maybe he made a lot of money,” Taylor said.
Blankenship has been a larger-than-life figure in West Virginia’s coal country where one in 10 households has an income of less than $10,000 but the average annual salary of a miner was $84,959, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Over the years, he spent heavily backing politicians and judges friendly to the coal industry and has blogged under the heading “American Competitionist,” taking a dim view of bureaucracy and regulation. His lawyers have accused the government of seeking to punish him for those views.
Goodwin, appointed to serve as the U.S. attorney for Charleston in 2010 under the Obama administration, denied that the case against Blankenship was politically motivated.
“I’m not under orders to do anything,” the prosecutor said, noting that he filed charges after a lengthy investigation into Massey’s practices.
Throughout his argument, Goodwin displayed internal memos and played snippets of taped conversations Blankenship had with subordinates to buttress claims the CEO put coal production over safety concerns and sought to keep reports of mine hazards confidential.
In one memo, he told underlings not to worry about ventilation problems at the Upper Big Branch mine and instead urged them to push ahead with extraction of high-value coal. “We’ll worry about ventilation at the appropriate time. Now is not the time,” Blankenship said in the memo.
The former executive can be heard telling workers on a recorded phone call to keep confidential a safety review of the Upper Big Branch because it “would be a terrible document” to be introduced into evidence if the company got sued.
Blankenship was aware of a system that allowed Massey managers to tip off miners underground that federal inspectors were heading down for safety checks, Goodwin told jurors. The tips allowed employees to “cover up violations” and dupe regulators with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration about the facility’s performance, Goodwin said.
“Mr. Blankenship ran Massey in a way that made violations inevitable,” the prosecutor said. The company adopted an attitude that if miners focused on extracting coal, “we’ll pay the fine,” he said.
The case is U.S. v. Blankenship, 14-cr-00244, U.S. District Court, Southern District of West Virginia (Charleston).