Coverage: Blankenship sentenced to one year in prison
On Wednesday, a federal district court judge sentenced Donald Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy Company, to one year in prison for his role in the company’s deadly mine explosion that left 29 people dead.
Blankenship was also handed down a $250,000 fine and a year of supervised release following his incarceration.
Alan Blinder of The New York Times had the day’s news:
Donald L. Blankenship, whose leadership of the Massey Energy Company catapulted him from a working-class West Virginia childhood into a life as one of the wealthiest and most influential men in Appalachia, was sentenced on Wednesday to a year in prison for conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards.
The prison term, the maximum allowed by law, came in Federal District Court here six years and one day after an explosion ripped through Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine, killing 29 men. Although Mr. Blankenship was not accused of direct responsibility for the accident, the deadliest in American coal mining in about 40 years, the disaster prompted the inquiry that ultimately led to his conviction. Federal officials have said that last autumn’s guilty verdict was the first time such a high-ranking executive had been convicted of a workplace safety violation.
“You should be someone that we are able to tout as a West Virginia success story,” Judge Irene C. Berger, herself the daughter of a coal miner, said before she described Mr. Blankenship’s career, in which he earned tens of millions of dollars and gained remarkable sway over this state’s politics and people.
But, she said, “Instead of being able to tout you as one of West Virginia’s success stories, however, we are here as a result of your part in a dangerous conspiracy.”
Minutes earlier, standing in the courtroom where jurors heard weeks of evidence before they convicted him of a single misdemeanor, Mr. Blankenship said, “My main point is wanting to express sorrow to the families and everyone for what happened.” As he spoke, relatives of dead miners cried in the courtroom’s gallery, and one wiped her face with a crumpled piece of paper.
Mr. Blankenship, however, was also defiant and told Judge Berger, “It’s important to me that everyone knows that I am not guilty of a crime.”
Judge Berger also ordered Mr. Blankenship, 66, to serve a year of supervised release and to pay a fine of $250,000, a sum well above what federal sentencing guidelines suggested, but she refused requests for restitution payments. The judge denied Mr. Blankenship’s request to remain free pending an appeal; unless an appeals court intervenes, he will begin his term within months.
Jef Feeley and George Hohmann of Bloomberg described multiple details of the case, including the defense’s argument that it was purely political:
William Taylor, Blankenship’s lead lawyer, argued Wednesday that federal prosecutors in West Virginia charged the coal baron for political purposes. He noted Booth Goodwin, who stepped down as U.S. Attorney in Charleston in December to run for governor, had made Blankenship’s conviction the centerpiece of his campaign.
Blankenship’s conviction is being trumpeted “as the reason to vote” for Goodwin even though the defense expects an appeals court to conclude “the government did not prove” the former CEO committed any crime, Taylor told the judge.
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 flag, a picture of a flame leaping out of an M.
Blankenship, a Republican, spent heavily to back politicians and judges friendly to the coal industry, according to state reports. He spent $3 million in 2004 to support 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 shouldn’t have participated in the case.
Investigators began probing the fatal blast at the Upper Big Branch facility, located about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Charleston, the state capital, immediately after rescue crews removed workers’ remains.
Kathy Ehrich Dowd of People featured the reaction of a former miner who lost three family members in the Virginia coal mine disaster that killed 29 men:
Afterwards, Davis praised the judge for handing down the maximum penalty, but criticized a system that did not allow him to receive a tougher sentence.
“I miss my family, he hugged his, and all he gets is a year,” he told reporters. “[U.S. District Judge Irene Berger] done great, she give him what she can give him, but there needs to be stricter more harsh penalty for people who put greed and money over human life.”
Blankenship addressed the victims during his sentencing, reportedly saying, “My main point is wanting to express sorrow to the families and everyone for what happened,” per the The New York Times, but later added, “I am not guilty of a crime.”
Davis also criticized Blankenship for not reaching out to his family personally after suffering a triple loss.
“He never come to me in six years, never come to me, my mom my dad – they gone now, they grieved themselves to death – he never come and apologized to none of us. He never said nothing,” he said.
Davis explained he lost his son Cory, only brother Timmy (“my go-to guy”) and nephew Joshua, and said Blankenship could have prevented their deaths if he followed proper safety precautions.
“That man has no remorse for human life at all,” he said.