Don Blankenship might finally see the inside of a prison cell. Six years after the tragic explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine killed 29 workers, former Massey Energy CEO, Don Blankenship, has been found guilty of conspiring to violate mine safety laws.
The misdemeanor charge came with a one-year prison sentence, far less than the 30 years he could have faced had Blankenship been found guilty of the multiple felony charges brought against him. And far less than many think he deserves.
My colleague, Sam Pizzigati, wrote about Blankenship in a piece titled, “America’s Greediest: The 2011 Top Ten Edition.” He noted that Blankenship “pocketed $ 38.2 million from 2007 through 2009, after $ 34 million in 2005, and retired this past December with a $ 5.7 million pension, $ 12 million in severance, another $ 27.2 million in deferred pay, and a lush consulting agreement.”
He also noted that Massey Energy, the nation’s fourth largest coal producer, was found “directly to blame” for the deadly 2010 explosion. “Under Blankenship, Massey managers kept two sets of books, one accurate for internal use and another fake for regulators.”
Safety was a far second priority to maximizing profit for Blankenship and the workers that trusted him paid the ultimate price. In a searing interview following Blankenship’s sentencing, former Massey employee, Tommy Davis, recounts losing his brother, his nephew, and his son in the blast. Choking back tears, Davis recounts how Blankenship never once tried to contact him in the six years since their deaths.
“I miss my family. He hugged his. And all he gets is a year…There needs to be much stricter penalties for people like that who put greed and money over human life.”
It is rare that corporate executives are forced to take a perp walk. Remember all the Wall Street bankers brought out in handcuffs for tanking the global economy? Me neither.
According to federal regulators, Blankenship is the first high-ranking executive to be convicted of a workplace safety violation. His lawyer has vowed he will appeal the one-year prison sentence, the maximum allowable for the crime.
Don Blankenship will remain an exceptionally wealthy man and might still wiggle his way out of spending time behind bars. The judge that sentenced him denied requests for restitution both from the miners’ families and from the company Blankenship left behind, now in bankruptcy.
Tommy Davis is right; we need much stricter penalties for those who value profit over people. It shouldn’t take another tragedy like the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion to bring about this change.
Josh Hoxie directs the Project on Opportunity and Taxation at the Institute for Policy Studies.