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April 6, 2016

Former coal exec gets maximum misdemeanor sentence for conspiracy to evade mine safety regulations

As reported in this AP piece, a federal "judge sentenced former coal executive Don Blankenship to a year in prison Wednesday for his role in the deadliest U.S. mine explosion in four decades, saying he was part of a 'dangerous conspiracy'."  Here is more on a high profile federal misdemeanor white-collar sentencing result:

One day after the sixth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, which killed 29 men, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger gave the ex-Massey Energy CEO the maximum prison time and fine of $250,000. A federal jury convicted Blankenship on Dec. 3 of a misdemeanor conspiracy to violate mine safety standards at Upper Big Branch. MOBlankenship's attorneys contended he should receive probation and a fine, at most. The judge denied their motion for Blankenship to remain free as he appeals. It's not clear when he must report to prison.

As Blankenship left the courthouse, a few family members of miners who were killed started yelling at him while he and his attorneys spoke with reporters. "We buried our kid because of you," said Robert Atkins, whose son Jason died in the explosion.  "That's all I got is a goddamn tombstone."  Asked by a reporter what he had to say to the shouting family members, Blankenship said: "Well, just that the coal miners didn't cause the accident."...

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez echoed prosecutors in saying the maximum punishment didn't fit the crime.  "This administration continues to support efforts in Congress to strengthen those penalties, and we stand ready to work with members who believe that no worker should lose their life for a paycheck," Perez said in a news release.

At Upper Big Branch, four investigations found worn and broken cutting equipment created a spark that ignited accumulations of coal dust and methane gas. Broken and clogged water sprayers then allowed what should have been a minor flare-up to become an inferno.  Blankenship disputes those reports.  He believes natural gas in the mine, and not methane gas and excess coal dust, was at the root of the explosion.

Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito and the United Mine Workers of America spoke favorably about the decision.  The sentencing capped a wide-spanning investigation into Massey following the explosion. Four other workers in the corporate chain were convicted of crimes including faking a foreman's license, lying to federal investigators and conspiring in an illegal scheme to warn miners and other subsidiaries of surprise safety inspections.  Their sentences ranged from less than a year to more than three years in prison.

The judge described Blankenship's rise from a meager, single-mother Appalachian household to one of the wealthiest, most influential figures in the region and in the coal industry. "Instead of being to be able to tout you as a success story, we are here as a result of your part in a dangerous conspiracy," she said.

During the trial, prosecutors called Blankenship a bullish micromanager who meddled in the smallest details of Upper Big Branch.  They said Massey's safety programs were just a facade — never backed by more money to hire additional miners or take more time on safety tasks. Blankenship was acquitted of felonies that could have stretched his sentence to 30 years....

In 2011, Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey after the explosion, agreed to pay $210 million to compensate grieving families, bankroll cutting-edge safety improvements and pay for years of violations by Massey Energy.  Under the deal with federal prosecutors, Alpha wasn't criminally charged.  The judge already ruled that Blankenship won't have to pay $28 million in restitution to Alpha Natural Resources, helping him avoid a serious blow to his personal fortune.  Berger also ruled that Blankenship would not have to pay restitution to about 100 people, including former miners and family members.

April 6, 2016 at 03:56 PM | Permalink


Wonder why Mr. Perez isn't so upset about EPA people not being prosecuted for the river disaster out west. Obviously, he's labor, but the alacrity with which DoJ goes after private sector people for crimes like this and its decision not to go after government officials who do similar things is telling, and it would be interesting to see Doug's view on the selective prosecution issues.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 6, 2016 4:17:16 PM

Not in any way defending the EPA, but, as far as I know, noone died in the river disaster and it was a result of an accident, even if it was gross incompetence. Noone was convicted of an intentional conspiracy to evade safety regulations and endanger lives.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Apr 6, 2016 10:34:42 PM

Fat Bastard, do you think for one second that laws weren't violated with the river disaster?

And what about the blind eye to Spitzer's structuring or Corzine's shenanigans?

Would be interesting to get Doug's thoughts on these issues.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 7, 2016 9:03:25 AM

What is absurd is that he gets away with a misdemeanor for being responsible for the deaths of people, when far less serious offenses result in a felony conviction, with all of the collateral consequences a felony entails (not least, for the politically-connected coal barons of West Virginia, the right to vote). He should consider himself lucky. The press reports I have heard of read have focused on the potential prison time and fine, showing that the issue of collateral consequences is simply not on their radar.

Posted by: DHMCarver | Apr 7, 2016 9:49:02 AM

federalist, I am still quite grumpy that the Bush DOJ did not go after former Prez Clinton for any number of federal crimes ranging from perjury to honest services fraud for all of his shenanigans during his second term in office. That the Bush DOJ did not --- and in so doing has saddled the country with the Clintons as national power brokers for two more decades --- is obvious proof that a range of politics and inside-the-Beltway "understandings" greatly influence how DOJ conducts its business. Moreover, the fact that Blankenship was acquitted on most charges --- in the wake of acquittals in cases like John Edwards and Roger Clemens --- is reason to suspect that DOJ is generally afraid that it will lose many cases against rich white guys with lots of resources unless/until those folks are entirely politially disgraced (or they have smoking gun evidence).

In the end, of course, this is all for me just still more reasons to be highly suspect of ever giving DOJ too much charging/sentencing power without any transparency or review of how that power gets used (and not used).

Posted by: Doug B. | Apr 7, 2016 9:59:59 AM

Hillary Clinton was senator in 2001 so not quite sure if going after her husband alone would have stopped her from being a "national power broker" as such ("two decades" being parts of two decades, apparently). We saw how that was of limited value in the 1990s.

The general judgment that going after out of power Bill Clinton was not a good thing was not merely a "politics and inside-the-Beltway" judgment call. The nation as a whole didn't want that sort of thing & Bush's non-action there reflected that. One can be "grumpy" about that but as long as our system of justice is carried out by electorally chosen individuals (and perhaps even beyond that), this will be be a factor.

From what I can tell, as well, even the average person would not be charged with "perjury" (a rarely enforced crime) for what he did even if (and many lawyers, not just those who supported him, doubt this) what he did amounted to perjury as such. The same appears to be true for other things for which prosecutor discretion was used here. I get that Prof. Berman might want to confirm his independent bona fides here given who he is responding to, but such things do come to mind.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 7, 2016 11:08:34 AM

Yeah, Joe, tell that to ordinary people prosecuted by the Clinton Administration for lying about sex. And, Joe, at some point, people can say "Hey. I wasn't convicted for wrongdoing, but because my name isn't X." That's a problem. Think it's cool Spitzer got away with structuring?

Posted by: federalist | Apr 7, 2016 11:17:28 AM

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