Blankenship, Self-Described Political Prisoner, Cries Foul

  • Coal baron scheduled to be released from prison in May
  • Blankenship’s lawyers argue he didn’t get fair trial

Donald Blankenship’s conviction for flouting mine-safety laws should be overturned because the self-described “political prisoner” didn’t get a fair trial, the former coal executive’s lawyers argued Wednesday.

Blankenship, the former chief executive of Massey Energy Corp., was found guilty in December of ignoring safety rules at the company’s Upper Big Branch mine to speed up production. The government began probing Massey’s operations after a 2010 explosion killed 29 workers at the West Virginia mine.

The coal baron was sentenced to a year in prison even though federal prosecutors didn’t show he knew he was committing a crime, Blankenship’s lawyer, William Taylor, told an appeals court on Wednesday. Taylor said the government sought to criminalize Blankenship’s management decisions on how many workers were needed to ensure safety at the mine.

“Every executive pays attention to budgets and quotas. The question is did he knowingly commit an act that was contrary to law,” Taylor told the appeals court in Richmond, Virginia.

The court didn’t indicate when it would rule after the hour-long hearing.

Hailed by prosecutors, Blankenship’s conviction marked the first time a CEO of a major energy company was held responsible for a workplace crime. The coal executive has argued that his criticism of President Barack Obama and his support of Republican candidates made him the target of a politically motivated case.

Prison Release

Blankenship, 66, is scheduled to be released from prison on May 10, although he could leave sooner for a halfway house. His defense team is also requesting his release while the appeals court decides the case.

The government called Blankenship’s assertions he was unaware it was a crime to order managers to ignore safety concerns “strikingly false.” Testimony from Massey officials and the CEO’s own e-mails proved otherwise, prosecutors said in court papers.

Steven Ruby, a federal prosecutor from West Virginia who tried the case, told the three-judge panel that jurors were properly instructed, and found, that the CEO “entered into” a conspiracy to violate mine-safety regulations. 

“The idea that this case comes down to a failure to hire a few more men is incorrect,” Ruby said.

Serving Time

In a booklet written from the minimum-security prison where he’s serving time, Blankenship describes himself as an “American political prisoner” who faced a biased jury and an unfriendly judge in the criminal case. Blankenship said in a blog post that 250,000 copies of the booklet were being mailed to friends and supporters.

“This booklet is the right thing to do,” Blankenship wrote in the publication. “It is the right thing to do because all Americans deserve a fair trial, and not one like I had. It is right to do this booklet because coal-miner safety is more important than political correctness.”

A West Virginia jury convicted Blankenship of a misdemeanor conspiracy charge of ignoring safety standards in Massey mines. The conviction carried a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $250,000 fine. Blankenship was cleared of three felony counts, which carried more substantial prison time.

Once one of the most powerful men in West Virginia, Blankenship spent millions backing political candidates friendly to the coal-industry. At the height of his career in 2009, he made more than $18 million in salary and bonuses. Blankenship stepped down as Massey’s top executive with a $12 million retirement package after the Upper Big Branch blast.

Inept Regulators?

An ardent free-marketer who blogs under the heading “American Competitionist,” Blankenship argued inept regulators were largely to blame for the mine disaster and that he sought to crack down on regulatory violations at the mine rather than ignore them. Government probes of the fatal blast found a buildup of coal dust led to the explosion, the worst U.S. coal industry disaster in almost 40 years.

Coal-industry groups from Illinois, Ohio and West Virginia filed briefs backing Blankenship’s arguments that the government improperly sought to criminalize methods that are standard practices in the coal industry by bringing the case against him.

Family members of miners killed in the Upper Big Branch blast were in court on Wednesday. Taylor sought to convince the appellate panel that U.S. District Judge Irene Berger erred in telling jurors Blankenship’s “intent didn’t matter.”

Ruby pointed to a taped telephone call between Blankenship and a subordinate in which the CEO acknowledged he’d gotten a confidential memo outlining safety problems at the mine. The call shows Blankenship knew about unsafe working conditions when he ordered managers to turn a blind eye, Ruby said.

In the call, played for jurors at trial, Blankenship can be heard saying the report would be a
“a terrible document” if it wound up in prosecutors’ hands. Ruby also noted Blankenship ordered managers in a memo to stop worrying about mine ventilation and threatened to fire executives if coal-production quotas weren’t met.

The case is U.S v. Blankenship, No. 16-4193, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit (Richmond).

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