Trial of Don Blankenship

The following editorial appeared in The Herald-Dispatch, Huntington, on Dec. 8:

The verdict in the trial of former Massey Energy Co. chief executive Don Blankenship likely fell short of pleasing any of those with a keen interest in the trial’s outcome.

Blankenship himself undoubtedly had hoped that he would be acquitted of all charges against him. Federal prosecutors who brought the case were hoping for convictions on all three counts of alleged violations presented to the jury. And most of the family members and friends of the 29 miners who died in the Upper Big Branch explosion in 2010 have indicated they do not believe justice was adequately served by a conviction on only one of the counts against the former CEO, particularly since it carried the lightest penalty.

But those who were hoping for a harsher outcome can take some solace in the fact that the man heading up Massey was brought into a court of law, and the allegations against him were given a thorough airing. And he was held accountable to a degree.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and his team merit plenty of credit for conducting the exhaustive investigation, which lead to four felony convictions against lower-ranking Massey officials, and for pursuing charges against the head of a major corporation. He believed the trial’s outcome did make a statement, calling it “a landmark day for the safety of coal miners.” The verdict, Goodwin said, touched on “The most serious conduct, certainly, that he was involved in was willfully violating the mine safety laws and placing his miners — those who work for him — at risk.”

Some who are closely involved in mine safety said they see the conviction as potentially significant and possibly leading to changes in how mine-safety rules are enforced and how corporate officials follow them. But the message would have been all the more stronger if penalties associated with safety violations made more sense.

The guilty verdict was returned on a misdemeanor conspiracy charge that carried a penalty of up to a year in prison as well as a fine. The charges of which Blankenship was acquitted involved securities fraud and making false statements, both felonies. If convictions had been returned on all three counts against Blankenship, the maximum penalties could have added up to 30 years in prison. The false-statement and securities fraud charges had to do with allegations that Massey issued a statement after the mine explosion that falsely said the company did not condone safety violations and strove to comply with all safety rules at all times. Prosecutors charged that the statement was intended to stop a sharp drop in Massey stock prices.

As some legal and mine-safety advocates noted after the verdicts, the punishments associated with the crimes appear out of whack. Tony Oppegard, a longtime mine safety advocate in Kentucky, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail that violating safety standards should be a felony. “If that were changed, maybe (coal company officials) would look at operating their mines a little differently,” he said. Putting it another way was Pittsburgh lawyer Bruce Stanley, who has represented miners’ families in other fatalities at Massey mines: “Sadly, when it comes to prison time, Congress has decided that lying to Wall Street is a much more grievous sin than conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws.”

Congress should work to change that. Just as Blankenship was accused of putting “profits ahead of people” by his critics, the mine-safety laws seem to be following a similar pattern. West Virginia’s congressional delegation should start working to change that immediately.



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