West Virginia Coal Boss Should Face Maximum Sentence, U.S. Says

By | March 30, 2016

Former coal baron Donald Blankenship should face the maximum sentence of one year in prison for flouting mine-safety rules, prosecutors said, urging a judge to send a message to the coal industry.

The government asked U.S. District Judge Irene Berger in Charleston, West Virginia, to ignore defense requests to sentence the former Massey Energy CEO to probation and a fine for his misdemeanor conspiracy conviction. Jurors concluded in December that Blankenship had sought to ignore safety standards to speed up coal production at the Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 miners died in a 2010 explosion.

“A year for what defendant did is paltry enough,” Steven Ruby, the lead prosecutor on the case, wrote in a 12-page sentencing brief filed late Monday. The U.S. also is seeking a $250,000 fine.

“We have known for a very long time what makes coal mines explode,” Ruby added in the filing, which lists more than a dozen fatal mine disasters over the past century. “And sadly, we have known for a very long time that some mine operators will ignore these hard-learned lessons until the law compels them to take notice.”

Different Portrayal

Blankenship’s lawyers said prosecutors unfairly sought to portray the former CEO as some kind of a monster who callously sent miners to their deaths to add to his personal fortune.

The former coal baron, cleared of felony charges involving securities fraud and making false statements, wasn’t guilty of the “brazen lawlessness” described by prosecutors in their sentencing brief, Blair Brown, one of Blankenship’s defense lawyers, said in a Monday court filing.

The defense team urged Berger to read the more than 100 letters filed on the former CEO’s behalf, citing his charitable works in West Virginia and his emphasis on safety in Massey’s mines.

“Without the kindness of Mr. Blankenship, one of my sons would not have been able to go to college to become an engineer,” Dorothy Adkins, an 85-year-old mother of two former Massey miners, wrote to the judge. “His life was forever changed by this act of kindness.”

Worst Disaster

Blankenship’s conviction capped a five-year effort by prosecutors to hold the former CEO accountable for safety violations that led to the explosion at the mine, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Charleston. It was the worst U.S. mining disaster in more than 30 years.

The former CEO stepped down as Massey’s top executive in December 2010 with a $12 million retirement package just before Bristol, Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources Inc., the second-largest coal producer by sales, acquired the company for $7.1 billion.

During the trial, prosecutors produced evidence showing that in 2009 alone, Blankenship made more than $18 million in salary and bonuses. That kind of income justified having him pay the maximum $250,000 fine, the government said.

The case is U.S. v. Blankenship, 14-cr-00244, U.S. District Court, Southern District of West Virginia (Charleston).


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