Former Energy CEO Don Blankenship Sentenced To 1 Year In Prison

Apr 6, 2016
Originally published on April 7, 2016 3:28 pm
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A former coal executive today received the maximum penalty for conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws. Don Blankenship will spend one year in prison and pay a $250,000 fine. Blankenship was the CEO of Massey Energy in 2010 when an explosion in the Upper Big Branch Mine killed 29 miners. Family members of the victims say Blankenship's punishment is not enough. Ashton Marra of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, reports.

ROBERT ATKINS: We buried our kid because of you.

ASHTON MARRA, BYLINE: Robert Atkins shouted before being pushed back by federal officers. Relatives of the dead coal miners surrounded Blankenship and his attorneys as they stepped outside the courthouse. Lead defense attorney Bill Taylor maintained Blankenship's innocence and says they will appeal the conviction. He made his statement as family members shouted from the crowd.

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BILL TAYLOR: We're obviously glad that this process has come to an end. The time has - it's been a long time coming, and we're glad to come to the end of it.

MARRA: Tommy Davis shouted over Taylor, six years I've missed my son, my brother and my nephew. How come you've never come and apologized to me personally? During the hearing, Blankenship did start to apologize to family members, but was cut off by the judge. Outside the courtroom, he said...

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DON BLANKENSHIP: I feel badly for them. I mean, there's a lot of emotion. That's understandable.

MARRA: Shirley Whitt, who lost her brother, Boone, in the mining accident, asked a federal judge in a written statement prior to the hearing to impose the maximum penalty for conspiring to violate mine safety laws - a year in prison and a $250,000 fine. Judge Irene Berger agreed. Whitt maintains the maximum penalty is nowhere near enough.

SHIRLEY WHITT: How could anyone think that's enough when the result of his actions took 29 people's lives?

MARRA: Lead prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby says, under federal law, the count of conspiracy to violate mine safety laws is a misdemeanor. Today's sentence is the longest his team could get. The charge and its sentence are spelled out in the Mine Safety and Health Act, approved nearly 40 years ago.

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STEVE RUBY: I think it would be a stretch to conclude that when Congress established a year-long maximum - a year maximum sentence for a mine safety violation that it had in mind a situation where the CEO of a mining company conspires to willfully violate on a routine basis.

MARRA: But Whitt and the family members of other victims say there are things that can be done, like changing the law and increasing the penalties assessed to those at the top of the corporate ladder. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin from West Virginia introduced a bill to do just that nearly a year ago.

JOE MANCHIN: Same thing that we're trying to do all the way across the board is hold people at CEO levels accountable for the actions they're taking, not just for what's good for their pocketbook, but basically what's good for the citizens.

MARRA: That congressional bill hasn't moved, but Whitt's not giving up.

WHITT: There is no victory in him going to prison. But if the laws change and he is used as an example that this is just the beginning, that's the victory.

MARRA: Blankenship was released on his previous $1 million bond and will be allowed to report to prison on his own, unless a judge rules he can remain at home until after his appeal. For NPR News, I'm Ashton Marra in Charleston, W.Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.