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Don Blankenship will be sentenced on April 6, the day after the sixth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch disaster that killed 29 workers. (Photo: AP)

US Seeks Maximum—If Paltry—Sentence for 'Cold-Blooded' Coal CEO

Scathing court filing 'is like no other sentencing memo in the history of corporate crime'

Deirdre Fulton

Saying coal baron Donald L. Blankenship made a "cold-blooded decision to gamble with the lives of the men and women who worked for him," the U.S. government on Monday requested the maximum sentence of one year in prison for the man once described as the "poster boy for malevolent big business."

Blankenship, former Massey Energy CEO, was found guilty of a misdemeanor conspiracy to violate mine safety laws in December. An explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch (UBB) Mine in southern West Virginia killed 29 men in 2010.

"What punishment can suffice for wrongdoing so monstrous?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby wrote in an 11-page court filing (pdf) Monday evening.

The sentencing brief skewered impunity for white-collar criminals, as it continued:

The United States knows of no other case in which a major company's CEO has been convicted of a crime against worker-protection laws, so direct reference points are difficult to come by. But compare this crime to others seen more regularly. Which is worse: a poor, uneducated young man who sells drugs because he sees no other opportunity, or a multimillionaire executive, at the pinnacle of his power, who decides to subject his workers to a daily game of Russian roulette? Which is worse: that young man carrying a gun during a single drug deal—a crime that will earn him a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence—or a CEO jeopardizing the lives of hundreds, day after day? Which is worse: stealing money or trampling on laws that protect human life? In each case, to ask the question is to answer it. Under any fair assessment, only a sentence of many years in prison could truly reflect the seriousness of Defendant’s crime and provide just punishment, which the law requires the court to do.

Unfortunately, Ruby acknowledged, federal law says that willfully violating mine safety and health standards "is worth, at most, a year in prison"—a punishment he calls "woefully inadequate."

But under the law's constraints, anything less than a year in jail would be laughable, he said.

"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," he warned. "A year in prison for what Defendant did is paltry enough. Anything less would undermine the basic requirements of sentencing."

Robert Weissman, president of the watchdog group Public Citizen, agreed in a statement issued Tuesday:

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. That is why it is so important that the notorious Don Blankenship be given the maximum jail time for his conspiracy conviction, and why Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Ruby should be applauded for his efforts to secure a maximum sentence.

The brief—which corporate crime writer Russell Mokhiber says "is like no other sentencing memo in the history of corporate crime"—also calls for the "fabulously wealthy" Blankenship to pay a $250,000 fine. 

According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail:

In his memo, Ruby explained that the sentencing guidelines recommend that Blankenship be fined between $4,000 and $40,000, far less than the $250,000 maximum allowed under the law.

Ruby said, though, that Blankenship is "immensely wealthy" and that "A fine of $40,000 or less probably would strike him, and others, as comical."

"It would promote a mockery of the law, not respect," Ruby wrote. "It would do nothing whatsoever to deter violations of safety laws by mine executives."

"In reality, a $250,000 fine for this defendant is not much different from a $40,000 fine," Ruby wrote. "But ... it is the best the court can do given the laws on the books."

The Associated Press reports that Blankenship's attorneys have reiterated their intent to appeal.

Blankenship will be sentenced on April 6, the day after the sixth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch disaster, by Judge Irene Berger of Federal District Court in Charleston—whose father was a coal miner, the New York Times notes.

No matter how Berger rules, her decision will "only serve as a tiny reckoning of our nation's complacency" about coal mining, as historian Jeff Biggers wrote after Blankenship's conviction. 

But that's better than nothing.

As the Justice Department's memo concludes: "It shocks the conscience that in the 21st century, knowing all that has been learned from decades of grief in our nation's mines, the CEO of a major coal company would willfully conspire against the laws that protect his workers' lives. One struggles for words to describe the inhumanity required for a mogul like Defendant to send working men and women into needless, mortal jeopardy for no purpose other than to pile up more money."

"The law, as it stands, offers no adequate punishment for his crime," it reads. "But what the law does allow, the court should impose: a year in prison and the maximum fine. Don Blankenship owes at least that much to the men and women who worked at UBB."

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