Opening statements delivered in trial of former Massey CEO
The trial of former Massey Energy chief Don Blankenship began on Oct. 7 with federal prosecutors making opening statements that cited the ex-coal executive’s often harsh words in memos and secret telephone recordings to argue he conspired to violate safety laws before a 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Blankenship’s lawyers countered that while the former coal executive was often rude and demanding to subordinates, he sat atop a sprawling corporate structure and was actually leading an effort to improve safety before the accident occurred.
“The evidence will show that Mr. Blankenship did not believe that the way to make money in the coal business is to run roughshod on regulations,” said William Taylor, Blankenship’s lead attorney.
The secret recordings of telephone calls made by Blankenship in his office in 2009 after he had a recording system installed, as well as a trove of other formerly confidential documents, are at the center of a rare criminal trial against a top executive following a deadly workplace accident. The accident at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years.
Blankenship, 65 years old, faces three felony counts and up to 30 years in prison. He is accused of allegedly undermining safety at Massey in the 15 months before the accident, and then lying to the Securities and Exchange Commission and investors about the company’s safety practices.
The government’s case depends largely on a view of Blankenship as an aggressive manager who pushed production at one of the company’s most profitable mines, while safety violations were regularly occurring at his direction.
Prosecutors allege Blankenship kept the mine understaffed to cut costs and knew that an elaborate system existed at the company to illegally tip off underground miners when inspectors were on company property. They allege he was aware that mine managers regularly faked samples of coal dust breathed by miners.
In the immediate aftermath of the accident, Massey lost hundreds of millions of dollars in value—Mr. Blankenship’s own Massey holdings dropped by $3 million in two days. Prosecutors allege in two felony counts that he lied to the SEC and investors in a news release saying the company didn’t condone violations of federal mine laws.
“The motive for all this was simple: money,” said Steve Ruby, an assistant U.S. Attorney leading the prosecution.
Ruby told 12 jurors that they would hear Blankenship’s own voice tell a subordinate about an eight-page memo detailing safety problems at Massey. The memo, written by a Massey lawyer, included notes by Bill Ross, a former official with the Mine Safety and Health Administration hired by Massey to serve as chief of technical services.