Unless an appeals court intervenes and answers his requestto stay his sentence pending a court appeal, one of the nation's most well-known coal bosseswill very soon see the inside of a prison cell.
Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship faces themaximum one-yearsentence after he was convicted of a misdemeanor charge of conspiring toviolate mine safety laws. A jury cleared him of felony charges that could havenetted the coal boss up to three decades in prison.
While the Federal Bureau of Prisons has an entry forBlankenship, it does not currently include information about where Blankenshipis to report for incarceration. In an emergency motion for administrative stayof execution of sentence filed May 10, Blankenship's attorneys indicated he wasto begin serving his sentence at a prison in California. The filing aims to atleast keep the former coal boss out of prison until the earlier stay motion isruled upon.
Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship
The U.S. Attorney filed a response opposing the emergencymotion late May 10.
While the investigation of the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosionthat killed 29 coal miners eventually led to his in December 2015, Blankenshipremained free on bond as he awaited sentencing. In early April, a judge handedhim the most stringent sentence available under statute.
Blankenship is scheduled to begin serving his sentence May 12. As of May 11, at 9 a.m., the court hasyet to answer a plea from Blankenship allowing him to remain free on bond pending anappeal.
Son of West Virginia
On a website Blankenship maintained promoting his musings onmine safety, politics and "American competitionist" values,Blankenship noted a humble beginning for himself. "We were poor but didn'tknow it," Blankenship writes of his family, who owned a gas station.
He wrote his early years, mostly spent in Delorme, W.Va.,were filled with baseball and watching television shows such as Gunsmoke, Andy Griffith,Bonanza, Wagon Train and Rawhide.
Blankenshipgraduated from Marshall University — which recognized him as a distinguishedalumnus in 1999 — with a background in accounting. He worked in the foodindustry, including Keebler, moving often with rapid promotions. He came towork for the Massey Energy company in 1982 and eventually worked his way to thetop.
"[M]ylife has been a great one," Blankenship writes on his website. "Iexperienced the cold chill of an Appalachian outhouse in January winters, but Ihave also dined at the dinner tables of some of the richest and most powerfulpeople in the world, including at the White House private dining table."
Thatrise from bottom to top, Judge Irene Berger said when handing down thesentence, made what she heard during Blankenship's trial all the moredisappointing.
"AlthoughI believe the sentence to be warranted and I believe it to be appropriate,there's no pleasure in my imposing it," Berger said. "Quite frankly,having given a bit — a good bit of consideration to this case, you should besomeone that we are able to tout as a West Virginia success story."
Blankenshiphas made it clear that he disagrees with assertions and conclusions drawn byprosecutors even though much of their evidence was supported by state, federal,independent and labor investigations into the explosion. Even after hisconviction, he continues to assert a "cover-up" of the facts aroundthe case and a political drive to prosecute him. He calls the mine explosionthe "worst tragedy of my life," but believes there is aDemocratic-led effort to persecute him for political gain.
"Afterall I have had far worse done to me over the years," Blankenship wrote."I have been shot at, had urine thrown on me, been lied about, beenpursued for decades by law enforcement — no I mean tyrants, been demonized, andbeen abandoned by those that once were friends. But it's all made for aninteresting, and I believe a meaningful, life."
'Run coal' — a blisteringindictment
Prosecutorsunleashed the indictment against Blankenship in November 2014, severalyears after the April 29, 2010, explosion of Upper Big Branch. The documentsuccinctly leveled accusations against Blankenship that investigative reportson the explosion had laid out in the months before.
Contraryto Blankenship's insistence he put safety above all else, the indictment paintsthe picture of a hands-on intimidator who cared more about producing coal atthe lowest cost possible regardless of worker safety.
"In my opinion, children could run these mines betterthan you all do," Blankenshipwrote in one memo quoted by prosecutors. Another said "I'm lookingto make an example out of somebody and I don't mean embarrassment." Othermemos frequently charged miners to "run coal" instead of doingactivities not directly related to production.
The indictment charged Blankenship with running a coal miningenterprise that intentionally subverted state and federal officials from doingtheir job in regulating mine safety. It also charged him with lying to theinvestment public over the company's safety priorities.
Ultimately, a jury was convinced Blankenship was guilty of amisdemeanor count of conspiracy to violate mine safety laws after it waspresented with the evidence. In its appeal, Blankenship's attorneys haveinsisted they were not properly allowed to present relevant evidence to thecontrary.
A warning to industry
U.S.Attorney Booth Goodwin, who lost the Democratic nomination in the May 10primary race for West Virginia governor, has insisted that in addition toseeking justice, the Blankenship prosecution was about securing the safety ofcoal miners. His replacement in the attorney's office released a statement tosimilar effect after Blankenship's sentencing.
"Thissentence is a victory for workers and workplace safety. It lets companies andtheir executives know that you can't take chances with the lives of coal minersand get away with it," stated Acting U.S. Attorney Carol Casto."Putting the former CEO of a major corporation in prison sends amessage thatviolating mine safety laws is a serious crime, and those who break those lawswill be held accountable."
Some have been skeptical about the actual impact of the conviction onwider coal mine safety. Blankenship was uniquely involved with the day-to-dayoperations of individual mines despite running a very large coal miningoperation.
Coal mine production and employees are also dwindling,particularly in Central Appalachia. At the same time, even before the prosecutionwas completed or the U.S. Congress could take major action, the U.S. MineSafety and Health Administration tightened up enforcement of coal mineregulations.
Massey Energy was purchased by after theUpper Big Branch explosion.