It may sound like something out of the Nixon White House, but embattled coal baron Donald L. Blankenship regularly taped conversations in his office, giving federal prosecutors powerful new ammunition as he approaches criminal trial in July.
According to Bloomberg News, the former head of Massey Energy taped up to 1,900 conversations that often go to the heart of the case against him. Blankenship was indicted last Nov. 13 on several felony charges that he violated safety standards and securities laws in the run up to the April 5, 2010 blast at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners.
The revelation of the tapes came about in a circuitous way. The tapes were given to federal prosecutors in 2011 by officials of Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Richmond-based Massey Energy in 2011 for $7.1 billion.
After reaching a non-prosecution deal with federal prosecutors, Alpha hired a powerful New York law firm to investigate Massey for any possible violations.
Alpha, based in Bristol, was required as part of a non-prosecution order it signed to surrender all evidence, including the tapes.
Earlier this year, Alpha declined to continue paying Blankenship’s legal bills since he was under criminal indictment. Blankenship, claiming Alpha was required to indemnify, him, sued Alpha in a Delaware court. The existence of the tapes was revealed in that venue.
According to court documents filed in Delaware, Blankenship seemed to know that his disregard and hardball management practices could hurt him.
The tapes show Blankenship’s disdain for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which regulates mines but also reveal Blankenship knew Massey’s practices were risky.
According to testimony, a tape has Blankenship stating, “Sometimes, I’m torn up with what I see about the craziness we do. Maybe if it weren’t for MSHA, we’d blow ourselves up. I don’t know.”
“I know MSHA is bad, but I tell you what, we do some dumb things. I don’t know what we’d do if we didn’t have them,” Blankenship said on tape in the Delaware case.
So far, little has been revealed about what evidence the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charleston, W.Va. has against Blankenship. Irene Berger, a U.S. District Judge in Beckley, W.Va., issued a massive gag order forbidding lawyers and even family members of the 29 mine victims from discussing the case, now scheduled for July 13 in Beckely.
The gag rules were order modified after the Charleston Gazette and the Wall Street Journal among other news outlets challenged them before the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.
In some cases, apparently, the tapes cut both ways. In Delaware, Blankenship’s lawyers played a tape from 2009 which has Blankenship urging executives to tighten up on safety. “I don’t want to go to 100 funerals,” he is quoted as saying. He allegedly told Baxter Phillips Jr., then Massey’s president, that if there were a fatal disaster, “You may be the one who goes to jail.”
According to Bloomberg, Alpha initiated the internal probe after reaching a non-prosecution deal with federal prosecutors. It hired Cleary Gottleib Steen & Hamilton of New York to handle it.
Since Alpha refused to continue paying Blankenship’s legal bills, Blankenship reportedly has paid his lawyers $1 million himself.
The writer is the author of “Thunder on the Mountain, Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal,” 2012, St. Martin’s Press. Paperback , West Virginia University Press, 2014.