BECKLEY, W.Va. – A notorious former coal company executive is still awaiting trial while the victims, the families of killed miners, await justice before the law.
Massey Energy’s former CEO, Don Blankenship, was awaiting trial to be held here on July 13 of this year on four counts leading to the April 2010 deaths of 29 miners inside the company’s Upper Big Branch Mine near Whitesville in Raleigh County.
Blankenship has not been sitting idle during this time. His lawyers have petitioned for a change in venue to move the trial from southern West Virginia, asserting that poor Mr. Blankenship could not receive a fair trial in the same area where 29 miners were sacrificed for Massey’s profits.
They lie in their graves around Upper Big Branch mine where they were buried by Blankenship’s alleged negligence, exacerbated by his cover-ups and fraud.
We thought that Blankenship would finally face justice beginning July 13 but that was not to be. The trial, which had already been delayed last year and again in April of this year has now been moved again to January of next year.
In the meantime, the court dealt the coal boss a terrible blow. It denied Blankenship’s petition to travel to Las Vegas, supposedly to take care of some “personal matters” and to have some dental work done. While that appeal was denied, his request for a trial postponement was granted.
Blankenship’s attorneys claimed that they could not possibly study all the massive documents pertaining to the case and be ready for trial by mid-July. Blankenship and his team appeared at the Federal Building in Beckley May 26 where his petition for another delay was granted until January of next year.
As if keeping him away from the lights and shows of Vegas were not enough, it appears that his former corporate pals at Alpha Natural Resources (Massey Energy’s successor) want to dump him. Alpha has been paying his legal costs related to the mine disaster and Massey’s safety practices.
Such agreements to pay corporate officers’ legal costs seem to be a common practice. Earlier this year, however, Alpha informed Blankenship that their company would no longer pay his defense costs because the company has “determined that Mr. Blankenship had reasonable cause to believe that his conduct was unlawful.”
As his luck would have it, Blankenship even caught a break on that. A business court judge in Delaware, Chancery Court Judge Andre G. Bouchard, ruled in his favor last Thursday, stating that he is entitled to have Alpha pay his defense lawyers under the unambiguous terms of the agreement by which Alpha bought Massey Energy in 2011. Chalk up at least that victory for Don.
Blankenship has had less luck with his travel plans. During his bail hearing, his legal team requested that he be released on his own recognizance, alleging his strong ties to southern West Virginia.
That request was denied and he was released on $5 million bond. The court also restricted Blankenship’s travel, ruling he cannot travel outside the Southern District of West Virginia or Pike County, Kentucky (adjacent to his native Mingo County, WV), except to meet with his lawyers in DC, or with special permission from the court.
Despite those strong ties to southern WV, Blankenship has made numerous requests to travel outside the restricted area and, after his indictment, the court did allow him to travel to Vegas for thanksgiving but denied his request to spend the Christmas holiday season there. U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin objected and called this proposed trip “more akin to a request to go on a vacation” than to be “home for the holidays,” as his defense lawyers had asserted.
Most recently, Blankenship again requested to go to Vegas over Memorial Day, which was denied. Subsequent documents have revealed that he now considers Las Vegas his home. So much for his strong WV ties.
But, wait folks, that’s not the latest in Blankenship’s travel saga. He now wants to travel to Ohio this month to see his son compete in a professional dirt track race.
Photo: On April 5, 2010, emergency vehicles leave the entrance to the Upper Big Branch Coal Mine after an explosion. | Jeff Gentner/AP