Prosecution asks for maximum sentence for former Massey CEO

March 29, 2016

A federal prosecutor has urged a judge in West Virginia to sentence Donald L. Blankenship to the maximum possible jail time for his conviction of a misdemeanor charge of conspiracy to willfully violate mine safety standards at the mine. His defense has asked Judge Irene C. Berger of Federal District Court in Charleston to impose a far less severe punishment of a fine and probation.

Blakenship was chief executive of Massey Energy Company when 29 workers were killed in a mine explosion, the maximum time he could face is a year in jail for conspiring to violate safety standards.

The New York Times reported that Blankenship was not tried on any charges that accused him of direct responsibility for the 2010 deaths at Upper Big Branch mine, which investigators said exploded because of improper ventilation that allowed gases to accumulate.

“Given the magnitude of defendant’s crime, a sentence shorter than the maximum could only be interpreted as a declaration that mine safety laws are not to be taken seriously,” Steven R. Ruby, an assistant United States attorney, wrote in his sentencing recommendation. He said existing law “offers no adequate punishment” for Blankenship’s conduct.

Although the Justice Department said that federal guidelines suggested a prison term of 15 to 21 months, the law under which Mr. Blankenship was convicted does not allow Judge Berger to sentence him to more than a year.

During the trial, prosecutors argued that Blankenship’s seemingly unwavering focus on Massey’s financial performance stimulated a corporate culture in which safety was less a priority than profits. Blankenship’s leadership style and demands, they said, effectively encouraged lower-ranking employees to cut corners and accept breaches of safety rules.

Ruby said that Mr. Blankenship had “made a conscious, coldblooded decision to gamble with the lives of the men and women who worked for him.” The prosecutor asked, “Which is worse: a poor, uneducated young man who sells drugs because he sees no other opportunity, or a multimillionaire executive, at the pinnacle of his power, who decides to subject his workers to a daily game of Russian roulette?”

Defense lawyers said at trial that. Blankenship had been committed to safety and argued that his demands for greater results hardly amounted to criminal behavior. They repeated many of those assertions in their filing to the judge ahead of the April 6 sentencing, which included more than 100 letters of support for Blankenship.

“The court cannot and should not conclude that the jury accepted the government’s broad arguments about the nature of the offense and Mr. Blankenship’s role in it,” they wrote.

Blankenship, who intends to appeal his conviction, was acquitted of three felony charges that together carried the possibility of 30 years in prison. Although Mr. Blankenship’s lawyers did not call any witnesses, they used an aggressive cross-examination strategy to undercut crucial components of the government’s case and told jurors that safety violations in an operation as sprawling as Massey’s were inevitable.

“The fact that other mines received more violations than U.B.B. is not an argument that violations should be excused,” the defense wrote. “However, it rebuts and mitigates the government’s version of the offense — that the number of regulatory citations itself proved widespread lawlessness and a conspiracy of great breadth — and the government’s unsubstantiated theories that less production and more miners would have reduced safety violations.”


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