Coal Tattoo


Candidates, from left, Don Blankenship, of Williamson, Bo Copley, of Delbarton; U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., of Huntington, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, of Charles Town, Jack Newbrough, of Weirton, and Tom Willis, of Martinsburg, participate in a debate in Wheeling, W.Va., Monday, April 23, 2018.  AP photo.

If you are among those who get a lot of your news from Facebook, you have probably seen a lot of people who aren’t fans of Don Blankenship calling the former Massey Energy CEO a “felon.” Heck, if you are a consumer of a lot of political news from major outlets, you probably saw the word used there a few times as well.

But the fact is that Blankenship, while he is a lot of things, is most certainly not a felon.  No, the charge he was convicted of — conspiring to violate federal mine safety and health standards — is a misdemeanor. That’s because the underlying crime he was found by a jury to have conspired to commit — violating those standards — is a misdemeanor.

The difference is important.  Not only does it mean that the most time Blankenship could have done in prison for that conviction was one year, but also it means that, really, our society considers what he did to be a minor crime.

As West Virginians go to the polls, though, it’s worth thinking about this a little bit more. Especially so since Attorney General Patrick Morrisey decided, just two days before the primary, that it was time to go after Blankenship for his criminal conviction.

Many of the questions at yesterday’s Morrisey campaign press conference focused on the sort of insider stuff that political reporting thrives on:  Why now? Was this some indication Morrisey believed Blankenship was surging in the polls? What if Blankenship wins the primary? Would Blankenship support him against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in the fall?

Buried in there was a question that was actually about what kind of position Attorney General Morrisey would take on a piece of legislation that’s pending in the United States Senate. Here’s the exchange:


Joe Manchin has had a bill out that would actually advance the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony of conspiring to violate mine safety and health standards. Do you support that idea?


So I actually would support a law if you knew that there was very clear intent on the part of an executive or on the part of an individual. It’s a very, very serious issue when you’re talking about conspiracy to violate mining standards or things that led to death, that I would be very open to making that a felony. But I think it’s really important to make sure that you have very clear intent in terms of the specifics of the allegation, and so I’d want to take a look at that language. But it’s clear to me that everyone must be accountable within the corporate channels.

It’s a pretty interesting answer. Here you have AG Morrisey agreeing that criminal violations of mine safety and health standards deserve more serious punishment.

At the same time, though, Morrisey also hedged a bit. And if you followed Blankenship’s trial or his appeal, the way in which he does so is interesting.  In large part, Blankenship’s legal appeal was focused on how you define criminal intent, or willfulness. And remember that three different state coal associations were pretty uncomfortable with the way these terms were defined in the Blankenship case, even though really the definitions were long-standing and established law.

There was a flurry of effort after the Blankenship case in which some political leaders talked about this issue (see here and here), but the legislation is still stalled.

I realize this is pretty boring stuff. But the fact that so many readers (voters) don’t understand that criminally violating standards meant to protect the health and safety of miners is considered a minor thing should be telling politicians and the political media something.

If so much of our politics in West Virginia — and so much of the way the out-of-town media narrates our politics — is going to be about coal miners and the coal industry, shouldn’t the question of whether criminally violating the rules that are meant to save those miners’ lives is a serious thing get more attention during political campaigns?