Donald Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy, will be sentenced April 6 for his role in the Upper Big Branch mine tragedy – and federal prosecutors want him to do jail time. While Blankenship was acquitted of felony charges related to the explosion at a Massey mine that killed 29 workers, he was convicted of conspiring to violate safety standards, a misdemeanor.
“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 Mr. Blankenship’s conduct.
Slap on the wrist penalties
Robert Weissman, President of Public Citizen, said Blankenship should be given the maximum jail time for his conspiracy conviction. “For decades, coal company executives have ruthlessly endangered the lives of coal miners, disregarding the law and sure they could escape, at worst, with slap-on-the-wrist penalties. It’s long past time for that era to be put to rest; doing so requires putting coal company executives in jail for their crimes.”
Investigators said the explosion occurred because inadequate ventilation allowed dangerous gases to accumulate.
Prosecutors argued during the trial that Blankenship, who was known as a micromanager, put profits over safety. Blankenship “made a conscious, coldblooded decision to gamble with the lives of the men and women who worked for him,” Ruby said, adding that the executive subjected his workers “to a daily game of Russian roulette.”
Judge Irene C. Berger of Federal District Court in Charleston to impose a far less severe punishment of a fine and probation. 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.
Defense lawyers said Blankenship had been committed to safety and indicated that he would appeal his conviction.
In addition to a jail sentence, Judge Berger -- whose father was a coal miner -- has the authority to fine Blankenship up to $250,000 and order him to pay restitution to the families of the miners killed in the disaster.