Six years after 29 miners were killed in a West Virginia coal dust explosion, the man who ran the mining company like a fiefdom – a coal baron and power broker who earned millions of dollars a year – will learn on Wednesday whether he goes to prison.
Donald Blankenship, who presided over his coalfields from a mountaintop castle, faces as long as a year in prison and a $250,000 fine over his conviction, the first in U.S. history for a mining CEO of a workplace safety crime. In December, jurors found the former chief executive officer of Massey Energy had ignored safety standards. On Wednesday a federal judge, the daughter of a miner, will sentence him.
“The message this sentence will carry will be heard loudly and clearly in boardrooms across the U.S.,” said Patrick McGinley, a West Virginia University law professor who was part of a group that investigated the blast. “The CEO of any company that fails to adequately protect its workers can be sent to prison just like any other offender.”
If U.S. District Judge Irene Berger does imprison Blankenship, it will bring some comfort to dozens of West Virginians, although the families of those killed had hoped for steeper felony convictions and longer jail time.
Blankenship’s lawyers argue the former top executive, who was cleared of securities fraud and making false statements, deserves no more than probation and a fine. “Probation will provide ample warning and deterrence” to other mine operators, one of Blankenship’s defense lawyers said in a March 28 court filing.
Even if he’s handed a prison term, Blankenship may not be immediately headed to jail. His lawyers have asked Berger to allow the former coal baron to remain free until his appeal is decided. They say they’re confident Blankenship’s conviction will be overturned and he won’t spend a day behind bars.
Prosecutors said Blankenship sped coal production and willfully ignored safety so he could fatten his annual bonuses.
“This gentleman needs at least a year away from his luxurious lifestyle for reflection on what he did and how his greed led to the annihilation of 29 lives,” Dr. Judy Jones Petersen, whose brother Dean Jones was killed in the disaster, said in an interview. “I see no signs of remorse or acceptance of responsibility from him.”
A blunt taskmaster who bullied underlings and controlled virtually all of Massey’s operations, Blankenship turned the mining company into the U.S.’s fourth-largest coal producer. West Virginia officials said Massey grew into a “towering presence in the Appalachian coalfields,” with workers’ homes flying the company’s white flag, a picture of a flame leaping out of an M.
Blankenship, 66, a Republican, spent heavily to back politicians and judges friendly to the coal industry, according to state reports. He spent $3 million in 2004 on a candidate for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. The winning judge later helped overturn a $50 million jury award against some of Massey’s units.
In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the judge should not have participated in that case.
Investigators began probing the fatal blast at the Upper Big Branch facility, located about 30 miles south of Charleston, the state capital, immediately after rescue crews removed workers’ remains.
A state panel concluded the following year that Massey managers forced miners to ignore basic safety measures, such as controlling coal dust and ensuring the mine had proper ventilation, as part of a push to increase production. The company operated the site in a “profoundly reckless manner,” the panel said.
Blankenship disputed those findings, contending the explosion was caused by a stray spark from a mining machine and federal regulators had refused to allow Massey to use the company’s preferred ventilation plan.
At trial, prosecutors presented evidence showing that in 2009 alone Blankenship made more than $18 million. He stepped down as Massey’s top executive in 2010 with a $12 million retirement package. Five months later Alpha Resources Inc. acquired the mining company for $7.1 billion.
Officials of Alpha, which filed for bankruptcy protection in August, were seeking $28 million in restitution from Blankenship to cover legal expenses and fines tied to the Upper Big Branch disaster. Berger denied the request in a ruling this week.
Blankenship didn’t testify at the trial but his own words came back to haunt him as jurors reviewed internal memos and listened again and again over seven weeks to recordings he secretly made of telephone conversations.
In those calls and memos, Blankenship told Massey managers to keep quiet about safety issues and focus on what “pays the bills,” according to one memo. Their job, he said, was simply to “run coal.”
If Berger sentences him to prison, it’s likely Blankenship will be sent to a minimum-security facility because of his short stay, said Larry Levine, who served 10 years in federal prisons and now advises on how to survive time behind bars.
Each day will start at 6 a.m. as a loudspeaker blares, “The Compound is Now Open!” Levine said. Blankenship is likely to be assigned a demeaning job and may not get to pick whether he sleeps on a bottom or top bunk bed, the consultant added. Meals will feature beans, rice and tortillas.
Instead of blogging his free-market beliefs under the heading “American Competitionist,” Blankenship probably will have no access to a computer and no more than 300 minutes a month of phone time, he said.
“It’s going to be a rude awakening for somebody who made $18 million in salary and bonuses one year to go to making 12 cents an hour scrubbing showers and toilets,” said Levine.
The case is U.S. v. Blankenship, 14-cr-00244, U.S. District Court, Southern District of West Virginia (Charleston).