Earlier this month, the United States’ largest independent coal company was slapped with a lawsuit by a former employee, claiming she was illegally fired for refusing to give money to political candidates chosen by her boss. That boss, Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray, allegedly sent letters to his employees asking them to support pro-coal candidates for political office, keeping track of who made the requested contributions and who didn’t. Employees of Murray Energy and its subsidiary companies were aware that failing to contribute could impact their jobs, the lawsuit claimed.
This incident is not the first time Murray has been accused of pressuring his employees to give money to his preferred candidates and his political action committee, the Murray Energy PAC. “The pressure to give begins as soon as employees enter the company,” the New Republic’s Alec MacGillis reported in a 2012 investigative piece. “At the time of hiring, supervisors tell employees that they are expected to contribute to the company PAC by automatic payroll deduction — typically 1 percent of their salary, a level confirmed by a 2008 letter to employees from the PAC’s treasurer.”
Murray has adamantly denied the veracity of the allegations. In a statement to ThinkProgress, a spokesperson called the latest lawsuit “baseless,” “blatantly false,” and “totally concocted,” deeming it an “attempt to extort money from Murray Energy Corporation.” The claims that Murray knows which of his employees donates and who does not are “totally fabricated,” the spokesperson said, a fact that Murray has “repeatedly stated.”
Still, the allegations raise questions about the ethics and legality of Murray Energy employee donations. Federal Election Commission rules state that corporations can’t make their employees donate to specific candidates or parties “as a condition of employment.” If corporations do ask their employees to contribute to certain funds, they must inform the employee “of his right to refuse to so contribute without any reprisal.”
In the latest accusation of coercion against Murray, the former employee cited fundraising letters she received from Murray in late May of 2014. Those letters asked for contributions to four Republican candidates for U.S. Senate: Scott Brown from New Hampshire, Ed Gillespie from Virginia, Terri Lynn Land from Michigan, and Mike McFadden from Minnesota.
To see how much money those fundraisers netted for the candidates, ThinkProgress conducted an analysis of contributions to all four campaigns from employees of Murray Energy and its subsidiaries — including the Ohio Valley Coal Company, the American Energy Corp., and American Coal — since the letters went out.
According to data from OpenSecrets, individual employees from Murray Energy and its subsidiaries donated a combined $5,300 to Gillespie, $5,275 to Brown, $4,850 to McFadden, and $4,800 to Land from the time the fundraising letters went out in May until the end of the second quarter, which ended June 30. That’s not counting the $2,600 each candidate received from Robert Murray himself, and the $1,500 each candidate received from Chief Operating Officer Robert Moore.
Campaign spokespeople from all four campaigns did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment on whether candidates would return Murray employee donations if they were found to be illegally obtained.
There are various reasons why Murray would prefer to see candidates like Brown, Gillespie, McFadden, and Land in office. Scott Brown, for instance, has historically had a very close relationship with the fossil fuel industry and like Murray, denies the science of human-caused climate change.
Perhaps most importantly, though, all four Murray-supported candidates for U.S. Senate are Republicans running for seats currently controlled by a Democrat, and all of them oppose the EPA’s proposed rules to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. None of their Democratic opponents outwardly oppose those regulations. If the Senate switches to a Republican majority after the November elections, it will likely take up legislation that has already been proposed in the Republican-controlled House to terminate the EPA’s proposed rules on carbon from coal plants. Brown, Gillespie, McFadden, and Land would be four more votes to do away with that rule.
That would be great for Murray, who is so opposed to the EPA’s carbon rules that he’s actually suing the EPA over them, calling the rules an “illegal attempt … to impose irrational and destructive cap-and-tax mandates.” Murray has said the regulations, which would be the most significant thing America has ever done to combat climate change, represent an “evil” attempt by President Obama to control the power grid and get rid of coal completely. “Grandma is going to be cold and in the dark with what they’re doing,” Murray has said.
Still, most campaign donations from Murray employees don’t go to individual candidates. Instead, most of them go to Murray’s corporate PAC. OpenSecrets data shows that approximately 91 percent of the $61,952 in individual contributions made to Murray’s PAC in the second quarter came from his employees.
The question of whether or not Murray pressured employees into donating could be decided in this latest lawsuit, though it is more likely that the lawsuit will be settled or dismissed before that question gets to a jury. That same question, along with whether the practice was illegal, could also be answered by the Federal Election Commission, which has been sitting on a complaint about the issue since the publication of MacGillis’ New Republic article in 2012.
However, as the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) pointed out last week, the FEC “appears to have done nothing” about the complaint so far. In addition, it’s possible that Murray may be able to skirt FEC rules on corporation contributions because his fundraising requests come from him personally — they have “nothing to do with Murray Energy” itself, a Murray spokesperson notes.