Coal Tattoo


Over the weekend, The New York Times published an interesting West Virginia Day offering:  A lengthy story about former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship. The story dug deep into the archives of various Blankenship controversies, and understandably made much about the big trial that’s coming up in October.

The story was what folks in the business call “a good read,” and obviously a lot of folks with a keen interest in all things Blankenship and in the pending criminal case (myself included) were posting the link and commenting on it through various social media outlets.

But gosh, the story got the number of counts and the potential sentence that Blankenship faces wrong, with the Times apparently being unaware of the superseding indictment that consolidated the charges into three felony counts and trimmed one year off what what was originally a 31-year maximum sentence.

Frankly, I was a little surprised that the Times did this particular piece, given that many of the same themes — especially how unusual it is in these parts for a coal CEO to be held accountable through a criminal trial — were covered in a previous piece the Times did shortly after the original indictment back in November 2014.

There are other puzzling things about this story, though. One, for example, is that none of the more than 4,500 words in the piece is “Goodwin.” That’s right, no space was given to allow U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin to explain why his office pursued such an unusual route in investigating this particular mine disaster. And no mention of Goodwin’s gubernatorial aspirations, or what impact the entrance into the Democratic primary of another somewhat controversial coal operator, Jim Justice, might have on whether Booth Goodwin gets into the race. No mention either of what effect the delay of the trial from July to October might have on that decision.

And it’s not like the Times was trying to keep politics out of the story. They reported, for example:

A conviction of Mr. Blankenship would signal a shift in the balance of power in West Virginia and other major coal-producing states.

That’s from a section that seems to be suggesting that charging — and perhaps eventually convicting — Blankenship would only happen now, in the context of the decline of coal industry jobs. It’s hard to make a case that’s really what’s going on here. At least for now, coal’s decline has made the industry more politically powerful. Just check out the results of last year’s legislative and congressional elections.  The politics of the “war on coal” are one reason Goodwin and his staff aren’t too upset about U.S. District Judge Irene Berger transferring the trial from the Beckley federal court division to Charleston, a move  that takes it out of the heart of the coalfields and into a bigger, perhaps at least somewhat more politically diverse area.

But the part of the story that really just doesn’t hold up at all is this stuff about Blankenship not having much to say anymore:

Mr. Blankenship is free on a $5 million bond and restricted by a judge to southern West Virginia and parts of Kentucky, as well as trips to Washington to see his lawyers. He lives in the tiny community of Sprigg, W.Va, in a green house with white trim behind a locked metal gate. Considering his means — he was paid $17.8 million in 2009 in salary alone — the place is hardly grand. When I pulled up to the gate in March, the phone beside it was out of order, but perhaps some surveillance equipment worked. Within minutes, a man pulled up in a car and politely asked what I wanted. I said that I hoped to interview Mr. Blankenship. He took my contact information and said, “I know he’d like to tell you his story, but I’m not sure he can.”

As Mr. Blankenship prepares for his day in court, little is known about “the Defendant,” as he is called in filings. A judge gave him permission in late May to attend a professional dirt track race in Ohio, where his son was competing. But he was not allowed to travel to Las Vegas for the Christmas holiday. In denying that request, a judge cited “a significant risk of nonappearance at court proceedings in the future.”

First of all, to be clear, there is no “gag order” in this case — not anymore. While Blankenship’s defense lawyers may be telling him not to talk to New York Times reporters, there’s nothing legally preventing him from granting interviews, giving speeches, or continuing to blog.

Second, suggesting that Blankenship isn’t continuing to have his say suggests the Times hasn’t done a very close reading of the court records in the case. I mean, really, just look at all of those pre-trial motions that were filed (and then refiled) … things like arguing this is a vindictive and selective prosecution by a Democratic U.S. Attorney aimed at silencing a major Republican figure in the state, or asking the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals to disqualify all of Southern West Virginia’s judges from the case, or trying to have the case moved out of the state altogether.

At last count, Blankenship’s legal bills so far in this case were about $5.8 million.  And that’s as of April 1.  Blankenship might not be making the rounds on talk radio anymore, but it’s hard to believe he’s not getting his say.