Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Coal boss's jurors thought they were convicting him of a felony


The following script is from "King of Coal" which aired on March 6, 2016. Anderson Cooper is the correspondent. Katherine Davis, producer.

In December, for the first time in U.S. history, a CEO of a major company was convicted of a workplace safety crime. His name is Don Blankenship and he was once known as the "King of Coal." The company he ran, Massey Energy, owned more than 40 mines in central Appalachia, including the Upper Big Branch mine, located in Montcoal, West Virginia, a state where coal is the dominant industry.


Steve Ruby: Right up, until the time the Upper Big Branch mine blew up, that was the way the company ran, because everybody understood that was the way Don Blankenship wanted it run.

Anderson Cooper: That was the corporate mentality that he instilled in his company?

Booth Goodwin: Right. That was the culture that existed.

Anderson Cooper: Profits over safety.

Booth Goodwin: Profits over safety. He set the tone. He set the corporate culture.

Despite receiving daily reports of the high number of safety violations, prosecutors argued Blankenship did little to correct them because Upper Big Branch was a big moneymaker for Massey, earning more than $600,000-a-day, and Blankenship's pay was directly tied to every foot of coal mined. In his last three years at Massey, Blankenship's total compensation was more than $80 million.

Steve Ruby: The men and women that we talked to who worked in this mine said that it was absolutely understood, it was expected that if you worked at that mine, you were going to break the law in order to produce as much coal as possible, as fast and as cheaply as possible.

Bobbie Pauley: Everything was produce, produce, produce. It didn't make any difference of the dangers. It didn't make any difference if you had to take shortcuts. It was all about put the coal on the belt.


Anderson Cooper: Was there enough air in the mine?

Bobbie Pauley: Our section never had air.

Ventilation is critical to mine safety because fresh air carries explosive coal dust and methane out of the area where miners work. Without adequate ventilation and proper clean up, coal dust accumulates, and is not only highly flammable, it can cause black lung disease, which most of the miners killed in the explosion were later found to have.

Stanley Stewart: A lot of times we wouldn't have any ventilation at all. You couldn't see your hand in front of your face.


As part of their case, prosecutors showed jurors the pumps miners were supposed to wear to measure their intake of coal dust, but at Upper Big Branch, Bobbie Pauley says they were routinely instructed by their bosses to cheat on the test, by hanging the pumps in the fresh air.

Bobbie Pauley: So your measurements when they were tested came in compliant with the law.

Federal mine inspectors visited Upper Big Branch almost daily but prosecutors say the mine had an illegal advance warning system in place. Security guards at the entrance would relay messages to miners underground alerting them an inspector was coming.

Anderson Cooper: They would use code words?

Stanley Stewart: Yeah, bad weather.


Steve Ruby: Some of the stories that they have to tell are horrifying. Being forced to work without enough fresh air, being forced to work in water up to their necks, miles underground. Being forced to work in areas of the where the roof and the walls of the mine were falling in around them.

Prosecutors say Blankenship was aware of all these safety problems because he was a micromanager who had oversight over every aspect of Massey mines, personally approving every hire, hourly raise, and capital expenditure.


Blankenship's attorneys called no witnesses at trial and pointed to safety initiatives their client put in place at Upper Big Branch.
One has to wonder if he had bribed a juror, and so felt confident about the verdict.

Steve Ruby: Miner after miner after miner who worked at Upper Big Branch took the stand and said that the so-called safety initiatives were a joke. That the safety program stops at the entrance to the mine. And once you're underground your job is to run coal.

After two weeks of deliberations, a federal jury came to a landmark decision, finding Don Blankenship guilty of conspiring to willfully violate mine safety laws.


But they didn't find him guilty of conspiring to defraud the Mine Safety and Health Administration or of lying to investors and regulators about safety violations, felony counts which could have sent Blankenship to prison for 30 years.

Under the law, jurors aren't allowed to know whether the counts they're considering are misdemeanors or felonies. And jurors told us, they were unaware the count they convicted him of was only a misdemeanor, which carries a maximum sentence of a year in prison.

Pam: I actually thought they were all felony charges.

Anderson Cooper: When you realized -- when you heard "OK, maybe he'll serve a year in prison," what was your gut?

Pam: I was surprised

Anderson Cooper: You were surprised Pam? In what way? Surprised it was so low?

Pam: Yes.

Kevin: None of us actually knew. In terms of what the time was for the charges. I was- I was pretty pissed.


Don Blankenship will be sentenced in April. Prosecutors say they will ask for the maximum one-year prison sentence and a fine in the tens of millions of dollars.

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