The criminal trial of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship began this week in Charleston, WV. The company’s Upper Big Branch mine was the site of the massive coal dust explosion in April 2010 which killed 29 coal miners. The Justice Department’s case against Blankenship involves conspiring to violate mine safety regulations and making false statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regarding the company’s compliance with safety regulations.
The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. and his colleagues have a website dedicated to the Blankenship trial. It offers readers regular updates from the courtroom as well as links to the documents, photos, audio of phone calls, and animations introduced as evidence by the prosecution. The Charleston Gazette and WV Public Radio purchased the transcript for the opening day (October 7) which featured the prosecution’s and defense attorney’s opening statements. Once I started reading the transcript, it sucked me in like a suspense novel would do. Here are some of my favorite excerpts from William Taylor III who is Don Blankenship’s lead attorney:
- "Almost everyone we've talked to has heard of my client, Don Blankenship. To put it mildly, he wouldn't win any popularity contests in the State of West Virginia."
- "It's no secret that Don Blankenship is a wealthy man. …There's no secret that long before the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch mine he was a controversial man, conservative Republican, dislikes the Obama administration, makes no bones about it, has been willing to spend his money in politics, is critical of Government, especially critical of the Mine Safety and Health Administration..."
- "He's not charged with speaking his mind or being rude. What he is charged with, I think you will find, is not true. It's not proved and it's not fair."
In response to evidence that Blankenship was unrelenting about pushing the company's employees to increase production of coal and wanting making a profit, Taylor said:
- "...can you imagine what happens to coal companies when the CEO does not push mine operators to produce coal? Can you imagine what happens when it costs more to mine the coal than you can sell it for? If the CEO is not responsible for cost, who is?"
In describing the government’s case against his client, Taylor said:
- "The crime that is charged here is willful violations of the safety regulations at UBB. One of the curious things about this case, however, is that there were no willful violations at UBB. In spite of mine inspectors being present in that mine almost every other day, none of the citations which you have heard about are said to be willful."
Assistant US attorney Steve Ruby laid out the government’s case. He previewed for the jury what they will hear from witnesses who will appear during the trial. Interesting excerpts from Ruby’s opening statement include:
- “...at the beginning of 2009 the defendant had a recording system attached to his office telephone and he started, you'll hear, secretly taping many of his phone calls. ...federal agents obtained the recordings that the defendant made that way, and you're going to hear many of them during this trial.”
- There’s a "hand-written note to the president of the UBB mine ...criticizing him for having too many miners in jobs that were about following safety laws around conveyor belts. This time the defendant [Blankenship] demanded the name and the job description of every coal miner who was working in those jobs so that he could conduct his own personal review of them."
- Blankenship sent “...a memo to all of Massey's mining group presidents, people who were below him on the corporate ladder. Quote: ‘Please be reminded that your core job is to make money. To do this you have to run coal at a low cost. I'm looking to make an example out of somebody and I don't mean embarrassment.’ …In the same year Massey itself was cited for more than 10,000 safety violations, but the Board of Directors voted to pay the defendant compensation totaling more than $17 million for that year.”
Ruby describes how Blankenship edited a document the company was going to file with the SEC
- "...'put in a section about the, the hazard elimination initiative’...‘It's a chance to do some propaganda there.’”
Ruby referred several times to the whistleblower, a man named Bill Ross. Ross was hired by Massey Energy immediately after retiring from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Ross allegedly expressed deep concern about safety problems at Massey’s operations, and a Massey attorney wrote down Ross’ opinions in a memo. Ruby went on to explain what Blankenship said about the memo (in one of his taped phone calls)
- The memo is "...highly confidential because I don't know, I don't know really what to do with it because I meant to keep it privileged and confidential but, Bill, his interview in our performance regarding MSHA's safety is worse than a Charleston Gazette article."
Ruby said the jurors would hear Blankenship talk about the damning memo:
- "'It's bad because like, for example, if there was a fatal today or if we have one, it would be a terrible document to be in discovery,' if there was a lawsuit."
And Ruby previewed some of what the jurors would hear from coal miners who worked for Massey Energy:
- "We are told to run, run, run until we get caught. When we get caught, then we will fix it."
- "'If I try to do things right, I'll get fired. I just keep my mouth shut and do what I am told.'"
- "The attitude at many Massey operations is: 'If you can get the footage, we can pay the fines.'"
The Justice Department's case will resume on Tuesday, October 13 at the federal courthouse in Charleston, WV.