Former Massey CEO given maximum penalty

April 7, 2016


Former Massey Energy chief executive officer Don Blankenship was given the maximum sentence of 12 months in jail by U.S. District Judge Irene C. Berger on April 6. Blankenship was convicted in December on one misdemeanor count of conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws, while being acquitted of more serious counts of lying to investors and regulators.

The sentence also included a $250,000 fine and was handed down six years and one day after Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine exploded on April 5, 2010, killing 29 men.

The Wall Street Journal reported that prosecutors never alleged that Blankenship’s actions caused the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, but the accident was regularly invoked by prosecutors and the defense at trial.

In handing down the maximum penalties allowable under federal law, Judge Berger invoked West Virginia’s legacy of mining and Blankenship’s own personal history as a native of the state’s rural coalfields who rose from poverty to sit atop Massey. However, she said he abused the trust of Massey’s shareholders, its officers and most importantly its employees by putting profits ahead of safety.

“Instead of being able to tout you as a West Virginia success story, we are here as a result of your participation in a dangerous conspiracy,” the judge said.

Blankenship is widely believed to be the first chief executive of a major U.S. corporation to be convicted of workplace safety related charges following an industrial accident. He continued to maintain his innocence in court.

Blankenship, who became CEO of Massey in 2000 and retired in December of 2010, has been one of West Virginia’s most powerful and polarizing figures. He helped Massey grow into the nation’s fourth-largest coal company by revenue, but under his guidance it acquired a reputation for placing profits before people.

Federal and state investigations into the accident found that Massey’s safety failings, such as not fixing water sprays on a cutting machine and letting coal dust accumulate, enabled a spark to set off a massive coal-dust explosion that swept through 2 miles of tunnels.

After the 2010 blast caused Massey’s stock to tank, prosecutors alleged in two additional felony counts that Blankenship lied to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and to investors in a company news release that stated Massey didn’t condone safety violations.

Most of the potential 30-year sentence Blankenship faced at trial was linked to securities-related charges on which the jury found him not guilty.

Two other former Massey managers pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate safety laws, while a former security chief at the mine was convicted of lying to investigators and trying to destroy documents. All three served prison terms.



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