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Dirty Money: The politicians keeping cash from an indicted coal baron

Massey Energy Co., CEO Don Blankenship speaks to reporters, Tuesday, April 6, 2010, in Montcoal, W.Va. The blast Monday at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine _ the nation’s deadliest mining disaster since at least 1984 _ was believed to have been caused by a buildup of highly combustible methane. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari) CREDIT: AP PHOTO/HARAZ N. GHANBARI
Massey Energy Co., CEO Don Blankenship speaks to reporters, Tuesday, April 6, 2010, in Montcoal, W.Va. The blast Monday at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine _ the nation’s deadliest mining disaster since at least 1984 _ was believed to have been caused by a buildup of highly combustible methane. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari) CREDIT: AP PHOTO/HARAZ N. GHANBARI

A federal grand jury sent shockwaves throughout the country last week when it announced the indictment of Don Blankenship, former CEO of coal company Massey Energy, on four charges related to willful safety violations and cover-ups prior to the explosion at its Upper Big Branch mine in 2010, a disaster that killed 29 miners.

“This indictment is momentous,” a Charleston Gazette editorial declared.

In the intervening years since the disaster, Blankenship has sought to portray himself not as a symbol of corporate greed, but an honest entrepreneur, releasing a 51-minute video this year purporting that the explosion was due to a build-up of natural gas and characterizing Blankenship as a champion of the health and safety of miners.

The grand jury found otherwise. It singled out Blankenship himself for not only being aware of “hundreds of safety-law violations every year” but, worse, for the fact that he “fostered and participated in an understanding that perpetuated UBB’s practice of routine safety violations, in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws, and make more money.”

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Blankenship, dubbed “The Dark Lord of Coal Country” in a 2010 Rolling Stone profile, has been an active political donor, both during his days at Massey and since stepping down in December 2010 (the company was acquired by Alpha Natural Resources in early 2011). His indictment on three felony charges and one misdemeanor raise serious questions about the candidates and committees who benefited from Blankenship’s largesse and whether they plan to return or donate those funds.

Andrew Beshear (D), son of Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D), is currently running for attorney general in the state and has garnered attention for the $1.48 million he has raised as the only declared candidate thus far, including $1,000 from Blankenship. When asked about the donation by the Lexington Herald-Leader last week, Beshear’s campaign said it would return the money.

In recent years, Blankenship’s largest contributions have been to committees working to elect Republican candidates to Congress: $30,400 each to the National Republican Congressional Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2010, and a combined $25,000 to the NRCC in 2012, according to a ThinkProgress analysis of Political MoneyLine data.

Neither the NRCC nor NRSC responded to multiple requests for comment regarding the contributions, but in 2010, Brian Walsh, the NRSC’s communications director, told OpenSecrets the committee had no plans to refund the contribution: “At this point in time the NRSC has no intention of returning the money. There is no reason to,” Walsh said.

At the state level, Blankenship gave $10,000 to the Republican Party of Kentucky in 2010, $10,000 to the West Virginia Republican Party in both 2010 and 2012, and $10,000 to the Kentucky State Democratic Central Executive Committee in 2012. None of the three state committees responded to multiple requests for comment by ThinkProgress.

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Blankenship has donated to several individual candidates in recent years, as well. The only federal candidate to receive money from Blankenship in 2014 was Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), who took $2,600. Blankenship and Inhofe are both fervent deniers of human-caused global warming and routinely disparage the EPA and any sort of government regulation, particularly those that relate to coal. Inhofe also received a combined $3,300 from Blankenship in 2008.

In 2012, Blankenship gave $2,500 to help elect Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN) and Rep. Reid Ribble (R-WI). Both have been clear about their desire to stop the EPA in its attempt to curb the carbon pollution from fossil fuel-fired power plants under the Clean Air Act, citing the common coal industry talking point that the Obama administration is waging a “war on coal.”

Several recipients of Blankenship’s 2010 federal contributions are still in office today. Rep. Todd Young (R-IN) received $2,400; Rep. David McKinley (R-WV) received $2,400; Rep. Robert Hurt (R-VA) received $2,400; Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) received $2,000; and Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) received $1,000 from the coal baron.

And Mitch McConnell (R-KY), incoming Senate Majority Leader, has also accepted funds from Blankenship in the past: $1,000 each for his Senate campaigns in 1996 and 2002.

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Campaign spokespeople for Inhofe, Walorski, Ribble, Young, McKinley, Hurt, Toomey, Portman and McConnell did not respond to multiple requests for comment by ThinkProgress.

These candidates for federal office receiving money from Don Blankenship are likely just scratching the surface of his political influence. He has given $18,700 to Massey Energy PACs, according to Political MoneyLine data, and Massey Energy in turn has given significant contributions to candidates and committees, such as $100,000 to the Texas Republican Party, $55,000 to disgraced former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell (R), and $40,000 to the Virginia Republican Party, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Massey’s contributions haven’t been limited to political candidates and committees either. “As the UBB disaster occurred, Blankenship’s Massey Energy gave $100,000 to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank that went on to defend Massey’s company and to push back against calls for better mine safety regulation,” the Republic Report noted last week.

Blankenship’s most unabashed exertion of his wealth for political influence came in 2004 when he “sought to reshape the politics of the West Virginia Supreme Court shortly before it took up Massey’s appeal of a fifty-million-dollar judgment for fraud and interfering with a contract,” the New Yorker recently recounted. Blankenship spent over $3 million on behalf of conservative candidate Brent Benjamin and to discredit progressive Justice Warren McGraw. The coal baron gave $2.2 million to his “And for the Sake of the Kids” PAC, according to Political MoneyLine, which then ran a series of hits on McGraw.

“The group deployed every sleazy trick in the book, accusing McGraw of letting child rapists out of prison and putting them to work in local schools. The smear tactics worked: McGraw was defeated, replaced by an industry-friendly judge backed by Blankenship,” the Rolling Stone profile recalled. “In 2007, the court overturned the $50 million verdict against Blankenship by a vote of 3 to 2. His $3 million investment had saved him $47 million.”

If Blankenship is convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 31 years in prison and while a judge has issued a sweeping gag order preventing anyone potentially involved in the case from speaking with the media, the details of the grand jury’s indictment offer a chilling glimpse into the coal baron’s tactics to intimidate workers, flout safety rules, and deliberately mislead investigators.

“Let me be clear: in my view, Don Blankenship, and the mines he once operated, treated miners and their safety with callousness and open disregard,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) in a statement. “As he goes to trial, he will be treated far fairer and with more dignity than he ever treated the miners he employed. And, frankly, it’s more than he deserves.”