Caperton

Fri, 2013-06-07 09:42Sharon Kelly
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New Documents in West Virginia Coal Lawsuit Shine Light on Judicial Corruption Allegations

“Extreme by any measure.” Those four words were used by the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark 2009 decision to describe judicial corruption and corporate influence in the West Virginia courts.

That opinion by the nation’s highest court famously reversed the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals justices who had thrown out a lawsuit against a major coal company and represented an unusually forceful reprimand of a lower court. It also symbolized a turning point for a state where coal has been king for much of the past two hundred years.

Another decision — one levied last month by the Supreme Court in neighboring Virginia — has garnered far less attention but marks yet a further blemish on West Virginia and it highlights the role that coal continues to play in politics and law in that state.

The little-noticed decision handed down by the Virginia court was a major setback to one of the coal industry's kingpins, Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy. For over a quarter of a century, Mr. Blankenship was the guiding figure and intellectual architect behind his company’s obliteration of the United Mine Workers union and the coal industry's wholesale shift toward a relatively new and environmentally-ruinous form of mining called mountaintop removal, which essentially involves blowing off the top of mountains to reveal the coal seams underneath.

Thu, 2013-06-06 08:00Sharon Kelly
Sharon Kelly's picture

The Epic Rise and Fall of Don Blankenship, former Massey Energy CEO

Three years ago, 29 miners died at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch mine. It was the worst mining disaster in decades, caused by a methane-fueled blast that was so strong it killed miners more than a mile away and left steel rail lines tangled.

Appalachia has seen its share of these sorts of accidents over the years and normally companies get fined, but mine operators almost never face criminal charges. This time was different.

For the past two years, the U.S. Attorney in West Virginia, R. Booth Goodwin II, has been systematically working his way up Massey’s hierarchy, arguing that beyond the managers who supervised that mine, there was a broader conspiracy led by still unnamed “directors, officers, and agents.” Goodwin has based his prosecutions on conspiracy charges rather than on violations of specific health and safety regulations, which means he can reach further up into the corporate structure. So far, he has convicted four employees including the Upper Big Branch mine superintendent who admitted he disabled a methane monitor and falsified mine records.

But in February, the case took a surprising turn. In pleading guilty to conspiracy charges, Dave Hughart, former President of a Massey subsidiary who is cooperating with the government, said that the person who had alerted him to impending mine inspections was Massey’s CEO, Don Blankenship – an accusation that sent a gasp through the entire coal industry.

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