Ford

Mine exec's 16 tons of influence

Associate EditorApril 11, 2010 

Many folks with outdoorsy preferences - count me among them - have gravitated toward West Virginia at vacation time. But if West Virginia is where you live, it's understandable you might want to vacation somewhere else. Like, oh, the French Riviera.

Coal company president Don L. Blankenship - the fellow who happens to run the outfit whose mine a few days ago lethally exploded - is a West Virginian who grew up poor. He ain't poor no more. His compensation in 2008, The New York Times tells us, was $11.2 million.

West Virginia's chief justice surely wasn't making that kind of money when, in 2006, vacation time rolled around. He could have had a fine time at, say, Watoga State Park in Pocahontas County (good camping so long as it doesn't rain the whole time you're there, like it did on our family trip).

But the Riviera's lure proved irresistible for Elliott E. "Spike" Maynard. And when he got over there, whom should he bump into but Don L. Blankenship!

Naturally, the duo broke bread together a few times, in France and in Monaco, and a photographer thoughtfully recorded some of the moments for posterity. Whereupon complications ensued.

Maynard came up for re-election in 2008. He was favored to win. But then those damnable pictures started to circulate. West Virginians for some reason were less than thrilled with the sight of their chief justice hobnobbing in the lap of luxury with a guy who already had a well-deserved reputation for throwing his political weight around. They gave Maynard the hook.

At least Maynard finally had recused himself when Blankenship's A.T. Massey Energy Co. asked the West Virginia supremes to throw out a humongous damages award that a jury had ordered Massey to pay.

Except it wasn't that simple. When the appeal first came up, Maynard took part and sided with Massey. He voted in the majority to overturn the $50 million award granted to Hugh Caperton, whose companies Massey had, in the jurors' view, unfairly driven out of business by backing out of a contract.

Caperton asked the court to reconsider. By then, the photos of the Riviera companions had surfaced. Maynard was targeted with a recusal motion, seeking to have him disqualified from the case, and he bowed to the inevitable. Massey Energy, however, had an ace in the hole.

Here's a little background, courtesy of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's 2009 majority opinion in the case of Caperton vs. Massey:

"After the [jury] verdict but before the appeal, West Virginia held its 2004 judicial elections. Knowing the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia would consider the appeal in the case, Blankenship decided to support an attorney who sought to replace Justice [Warren] McGraw. Justice McGraw was a candidate for re-election to that court. The attorney who sought to replace him was Brent Benjamin."

Blankenship was accustomed to flinging money in the world of politics. But that year, he outdid himself. He spent some $3 million on Benjamin's behalf, dwarfing all other investments in the campaign. What do you know - Benjamin won.

When Massey Energy's appeal of the Caperton award came along, Benjamin denied requests that he recuse himself, insisting that he could remain impartial. Then, no doubt to the surprise of few, he voted in 2007 to reverse the jury verdict.

Benjamin became acting chief justice after Maynard lost his re-election bid (remember the snapshots with Blankenship). Having turned down multiple recusal requests, Benjamin was in the 3-2 majority when the court reaffirmed its decision in Massey's favor. Here's where the U.S. Supreme Court became involved.

In a 5-4 ruling, the high court declared that for Benjamin to have taken part in the deliberations involving Blankenship's company violated Caperton's rights to due process of law.

It was a landmark ruling that shed light on the perils of judicial elections when they can be skewed by self-interested high rollers like Blankenship. The only mystery is how the court's conservative quartet could have thought any differently.

But then, conservatives and Blankenship seem to be on the same wave length. His hefty campaign contributions and those of Massey's PAC have tilted heavily toward Republicans - exclusively to the GOP in federal races since 2000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. What's the price of favorable treatment from lawmakers and regulators?

Massey's Upper Big Branch mine had a disturbing record of safety violations, duly noted by federal inspectors. Some of those violations signaled the kind of problems that could have contributed to last week's blast that killed at least 25 miners. The crackdown never came.

We can admire people who pull themselves up by their bootstraps to attain riches and power. But when they do it in a manner that endangers vulnerable workers while bending the institutions of government to their own purposes, there shouldn't be any more Riviera vacations. Perhaps the warden can find some sand for their corner of the prison yard. Perhaps they can dig the sand themselves.

Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at steve.ford@newsobserver.com.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service