CEO Responsible For 29 W.V. Miners’ Deaths Convicted And May Face One Year In Jail

Don Blankenship Massey Energy

America’s justice system, although allegedly “blind,” is hardly what one would consider just or fair; at least in the sense that all Americans are treated equally in the eyes of the law. Most Americans are aware that the system works differently for the rich and powerful than it does for the rest of the population. Justice in America is not blind, it sees wealth and power and simply closes its eyes, but focuses intently on Americans who are not rich or well-connected.

How else can a man like Cliven Bundy summon armed militias to confront federal officers and be hailed as a hero by Republicans instead of being tried and convicted for sedition the entire nation watched unfold. All the while, a person of color is thrown in prison for having a reefer in their pocket, or legally gunned down by law enforcement officers for walking down the street, or being unfortunate enough to be handcuffed in the back of a patrol car.

The way the justice system is tilted toward protecting the wealthy is certainly not lost on the rich or their corporations, especially when it involves blatantly violating regulations. It is true that corporations are regularly cited and fined by federal regulators, but with armies of lawyers and time the citations and fines are typically reduced or tied up in courts into perpetuity. The American justice system is very good for the rich and corporations no matter how predatory or deadly they are.

Last year, a corporate predator in the fossil fuel industry who is ultimately responsible for the death of 29 West Virginia coal miners in 2010 was finally indicted for conspiring to violate federal mine safety regulations, lying to federal safety investigators and filing fraudulent Security and Exchange Commission documents.

The former CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, faced charges in federal court for conspiring to violate mine safety regulations, deceiving Massey investors and Security and Exchange Commission regulators, and concealing safety violations from 2008 up until 2010 when an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 West Virginia coal workers. Blankenship was also charged with deliberately impeding federal mine safety investigations directly following the blast to cover his culpability in what many in West Virginia have labeled “mass murder.”

Yesterday the “mass murderer” was found guilty in federal court of the only misdemeanor charge and acquitted of the  felony counts. Instead of spending up to 31 years in a federal penitentiary, Blankenship will get a one-year sentence at best for his crucial part in the death of 29 West Virginia coal miners.

It is most likely that Blankenship will be exonerated on appeal and escape any sentence and win an appellate judge’s order for the government to issue a sincere public apology for  inconveniencing him and to bless him because he is an extremely wealthy, well-connected fossil fuel acolyte and avid anti-regulation conservative. The families of the 29 victims are unlikely to participate in any public apology, and they may even withhold their conservative god’s blessing for the man responsible for their loved-ones’ unnecessary demise.

The jury found that Blankenship was only guilty of conspiring to commit mine safety violations, but innocent of making false statements to federal regulators after the 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners. Blankenship was given a pass for making two false statements in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that said, “We do not condone any violation of MSHA regulations,” and “we strive to be in compliance with all regulations at all times.”

It is curious that the jury convicted Blankenship of “conspiring to commit mine safety regulation violations,” but acquitted him of lying to regulators, investors, and the SEC in claiming he “strived to be in compliance with all regulations” and “did not condone any violation of federal mine regulations.” It is good to be rich and powerful in America, and to afford a legal team that convinced jurors the trial was founded on Blankenship’s wealth, power, and thousands of mine safety violation documents the defense said were erroneous; even though Massey Energy paid the fines levied by mine safety regulators for violating safety regulations.

Blankenship’s legal team told jurors the government was prosecuting a case relying on “misinformed documents and heavy doses of personal animus toward a man who was rich and powerful.” According to his lead attorney’s statement to jurors, “We don’t convict people in this country because they’re rich or rude or tough. The thousands of citations for violating federal mine safety regulations you’ve heard about are not crimes;” even if they result in the death of 29 mine workers.

After the verdict, Blankenship’s lead defense lawyer said “we are disappointed, but not as disappointed as we could have been. I’m confident that we’ll prevail on appeal.” Regardless whether Blankenship walks free or not, the trial’s outcome verifies what many, many West Virginia residents have always known; coal companies and their leaders face only cursory scrutiny, and in the case of Blankenship, literally get away without any responsibility in the deaths of 29 men in the pursuit of profits.

It was typically conservative of Blankenship’s defense team to portray the federal charges as an Obama Administration “payback” for opposing environmental and mine safety regulations, or a prosecutorial vendetta because he was a rich and powerful man. Of course Blankenship would try to make the trial and prosecution about political retribution because of President Obama’s environmental agenda, but if that was the case the great majority of the fossil fuel industry would be mired in federal prosecutions for conspiring to violate federal environmental and safety regulations as part of their operating manual.

There was nothing whatsoever political about prosecuting a coal company CEO for lying to federal mine officials, or deliberately conspiring to violate safety regulations that would have saved 29 hard-working West Virginia miners’ lives. And, the federal prosecution had nothing to do with Blankenship being a rich and powerful man; it was about him lying and violating federal mine safety regulations to make himself a much richer and more powerful man.

It is obvious that the jury agreed with Blankenship’s lawyer’s that his quest for greater riches superseded the safety of the very men whose hard work and lives made Blankenship, and Massey Energy, extremely wealthy. Even the judge believed Blankenship warranted some good old American judicial respect as a white collar (rich) criminal and allowed him to remain free on bond despite the prosecutor’s request that Blankenship be jailed, or at least confined to his home until sentencing.

In America, it is good to be rich, powerful, a fossil fuel corporatist with a veritable license to kill, a high-powered legal team, and jurors who revere the super-rich and powerful. Because while regular Americans are convicted and imprisoned regularly of lesser crimes such as protesting racial injustice or smoking a blunt, a filthy-rich dirty energy CEO “might” face a year being confined for the deaths of 29 men who helped make Blankenship very rich, very powerful, and according to the American justice system, very special.