CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Shortly before noon Dec. 3, the jury in the trial of Donald Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy Co., notified U.S. District Judge Irene Berger that they had, after 10 days of deliberation, finally reached a verdict on all three charges against the coal criminal.
They found Blankenship guilty of conspiring to violate mine safety and health standards at the Upper Big Branch Mine of Massey Energy’s coal operations in Raleigh County, W.Va.
The conspiracy charge, on which Blankenship was convicted is a misdemeanor, that carries a maximum of one-year in jail and possible fines amounting to twice the financial gain resulting from the safety conspiracy. The jury acquitted Blankenship on the two felony charges, securities fraud and making false statements, for which he could have faced up to 33 years in prison. After the verdict was read, a sentencing hearing was set for March 23, 2016.
The defense team of lawyers seemed to gloat that, despite their disappointment on the misdemeanor conviction, their client had been acquitted of the two felony charges. They vowed to appeal Blankenship’s misdemeanor conviction, which they characterized as a “mistake” and expressed confidence that the misdemeanor conviction will be reversed on appeal.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin tried to put lipstick on this sow of the U.S. justice system by stating that the jury’s verdict “sends a clear and powerful message” that it does not matter how “rich and powerful” one is, they will be “held accountable” if they “gamble with” the safety of their workers.
The “clear and powerful message” not stated seems to be that, if you deceive stock investors or make false statements, you could, if convicted, face up to 33 years in prison. If, on the other hand, you conspire to violate mine safety standards to enhance company profits and even if that conspiracy results in a mine explosion like the one that killed 29 miners in April of 2010, you might get a year in jail and have to pay double the money you made on the deaths of those miners.
The Prosecution did ask to have Blankenship taken into custody and, failing that, they tried to have his $5 million bail raised to $10 million because Blankenship has international ties, a foreign bank account, and is a definite flight risk. His attorney responded that the defendant had a perfect record of court attendance. Judge Berger essentially bought the defense argument and let Blankenship remain free on the same conditions of his bond.
In the photo accompanying this article are twenty-nine miner’s helmets, one for each miner killed at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine. If Blankenship’s appeal is rejected and he actually has to serve the maximum full year in jail, each helmet represents only twelve days and change that he could spend behind bars. So much for clear and powerful messages.
Photo: Twenty-nine miner’s helmets, one for each miner killed at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine.