Blankenship has high-profile, top-dollar team set to begin defense

JOEL EBERT | Gazette-Mail
Taylor (left) and Steven Herman (center) walk with Blankenship as he exits federal court on Oct. 14.

The head of the International Monetary Fund. A U.S. senator. A White House chief of staff. A Salt Lake City Olympics committee president. A securities firm. A New York Stock Exchange chairman. An Internal Revenue Service official. A former Wal-Mart vice chairman. A former Fannie Mae official. And pop artist Janet Jackson.

Those are just some of the clients of the attorneys who are representing former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship.

Blankenship’s lawyers have successfully defended against charges ranging from perjury, conspiracy and wire fraud to tax evasion, sexual assault and prosecutorial misconduct.

With federal prosecutors prepared to rest their case against Blankenship — who has been charged with conspiring to violate mine safety standards, thwart federal inspections and lying to securities regulators, as well as committing stock fraud — the trial now turns to the defense team, which is expected to call its first witness as early as today.

Each day, as he quietly sits at the defense table, Blankenship is surrounded by a group of high-profile and even higher-priced lawyers.

At his far left is the gray-haired and bearded Bill Taylor, the team’s lead lawyer and one of five attorneys from Zuckerman Spaeder, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm that has netted several high-profile cases and attorneys.

The firm, which has offices in New York, Tampa and Baltimore, is a top-listed firm for white-collar criminal defense in Best Lawyers, a peer-reviewed legal publication

“Zuckerman Spaeder is one of the premier white-collar firms in the country,” said Mike Hissam, a Charleston criminal defense and coal industry lawyer and a former assistant U.S. attorney who worked in the early stages of the Upper Big Branch Mine investigation. His firm, Bailey and Glasser, represents Chris Blanchard, the former Performance Coal Co. president, who spent a week on the stand in Blankenship’s trial.

“They’re one of the go-to firms, if you’re a prominent high-level or corporate target,” Hissam said.

According to his biography, Taylor, who has 40 years of experience, was instrumental in the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund. In May 2011, Strauss-Kahn was charged with sexually assaulting Nafissatou Diallo, a hotel housekeeper in New York City. By August, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office dropped the charges against Strauss-Khan after information began to surface that called into question the credibility of Diallo.

A founding member of Zuckerman Spaeder in 1975, Taylor’s biography notes that he’s known for his “creative motions,” which have been on full display throughout the Blankenship trial, Taylor has been methodical and unafraid to raise objections. His opening statement lasted more than 90 minutes. While he has personally cross-examined five government witnesses, none was more important than Taylor’s five-day questioning of Blanchard.

Taylor frequently delayed asking U.S. District Judge Irene Berger to admit exhibits into evidence. It was unclear if the tactic was purposeful or part of an attempt to charm the jury. At several points during his interactions with Blanchard, Taylor — who at times has a pronounced Southern accent — stood with his arms crossed as he occasionally stepped away from a podium and looked directly at the jury as he prodded at one the government’s key witnesses.

In addition to Strauss-Kahn, Taylor has a long list of high-profile clients.

In the early 1990s, Taylor helped U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif., during the federal government’s ethics proceedings after the savings and loan crisis prompted by the collapse of Lincoln Savings and Loan. Cranston was one of the “Keating Five,” U.S. senators who were accused of improperly intervening on behalf of Lincoln’s chairman, Charles Keating.

After that, Taylor represented Mack McLarty, President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, who was investigated for his involvement in the Whitewater scandal.

More recently, Taylor was hired to represent Wal-Mart Vice President Thomas Coughlin, who pleaded guilty to wire fraud and tax evasion in 2006, after misappropriating between $100,000 and $500,000 in corporate funds through fraudulent reimbursements and improper use of Wal-Mart gift cards.

The same year, Taylor was the lead attorney representing Milberg Weiss Bershad & Schulman, a high-profile law firm accused of conspiring to pay $11 million out of legal fees to people who agreed to be named plaintiffs in cases against major corporations, including Enron and WorldCom.

Fortune magazine once called Milberg Weiss “America’s meanest law firm,” noting that the firm boasted of collecting $45 billion for “cheated investors” since 1965. The firm agreed to pay $75 million to settle the charges against it, and four of the firm’s leaders went to prison.

While he worked on the Coughlin and Milberg Weiss cases, Taylor also was trying to secure a dismissal of charges against former New York Stock Exchange chairman Kenneth Langone, who was investigated by then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer for his role in compensating the stock exchange’s chairman, Richard Grasso. The case against Langone was dismissed in 2008.

Taylor also served as counsel to William Welch II, the former chief of the Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice, who was involved in the 2012 prosecution of Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. Taylor helped obtain an exoneration of Welch.

Last year, Taylor represented Lois Lerner, a former Internal Revenue Service official who was called before the House Oversight Committee to discuss her role in the IRS’s targeting of conservative organizations.

Throughout the first month of Blankenship’s trial, Taylor has echoed comments he made following Blankenship’s November 2014 indictment, when he called his client a “tireless advocate for mine safety.” In his opening statement, Taylor acknowledged that Blankenship is a polarizing figure, but called him a “safety innovator.”

Framing Blankenship as such is part of Taylor’s toolkit. In 2006, he told LegalTimes, “If you can’t explain your defense in less than five minutes, in three or four sentences, your defense simply won’t hold up.”

In addition to his courtroom tactics, Taylor likes to manage his clients in other ways. On most days in the Blankenship trial, he can be seen walking next to the former CEO during lunch breaks as the two quietly chat, occasionally cracking a smile.

The careful handling of Blankenship is similar to what Taylor did when negative attention descended on Strauss-Kahn. During that trial, Taylor told The Washington Post, “When you’re representing a client in that circumstance, the best thing you can do for him is to keep it completely out of public view. It’s totally inconsistent with anybody’s notion about how to market yourself.”

The rest of the team

Blankenship’s defense team also includes Blair Brown, who joined Zuckerman Spaeder in 1988. He has cross-examined the majority of the government’s witnesses.

Brown defended former Salt Lake City Olympics committee president Thomas Welch, who faced federal fraud and bribery charges in connection to the 2002 Winter Games, Some charges against Welch were dismissed, and he was acquitted of the rest by a federal judge.

Brown’s biography on Zuckerman Spaeder’s website also notes that he represented “an internationally prominent entertainer, secured retractions of false statements made by a major celebrity television program and Internet news site.”

The client was Janet Jackson.

In August 2012, Brown sent two letters on Jackson’s behalf to TMZ, a celebrity news organization, demanding a retraction for two stories about his client. The publication later retracted both stories.

Another defense attorney for Blankenship, Eric Delinsky, joined Zuckerman Spaeder in 2004. Formerly with the Federal Public Defender’s Office for the District of Maryland, Delinsky served as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro and spent three years working for Williams and Connolly, the same Washington-based law firm where Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby, who is helping to prosecute Blankenship, once was employed.

Among Delinsky’s highest-profile clients was J. Timothy Howard, a former chief financial officer at Fannie Mae who was involved in a legal battle over whether company executives committed securities fraud in the early 2000s. In 2012, a federal judge dismissed a shareholder lawsuit in which Howard was named.

The year before, Delinsky was one of several attorneys representing members of two defense contractor companies for their involvement in alleged abuse of detainees held at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

According to a 2006 profile in Washingtonian magazine, Delinsky spent his childhood watching his father defend indicted judges and federal officials involved in corruption cases. His mother is author Barbara Delinsky, who has penned dozens of romance novels.

Through the first half of the case, Delinsky has only cross-examined five government witnesses and has, at times, been quite animated. At one point during his cross-examination of financial expert Frank Torchio, Delinsky waved his hands like an air traffic controller as he pointed toward the prosecution team.

The final attorney at the defense table throughout most of the trial has been James Walls.

A graduate of West Virginia University’s College of Law, Walls is one of two attorneys from Spilman Thomas and Battle who are representing Blankenship. The other is Alex Macia, who was general counsel to former Gov. Bob Wise and West Virginia University.

Although Macia has rarely been in the courtroom, the slicked-back gray-haired Walls, frequently found in the seat next to Blankenship, has shared in the day-to-day duties of the Blankenship defense team. Thus far, he has cross-examined six government witnesses.

Walls previously was involved in a Massey-related lawsuit that cost the company $220 million. The case, which came from Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, alleged that Massey violated a 10-year contract to supply the steel company with high-quality metallurgical coal. Walls served as lead counsel during the four-month trial, which ended in July 2007.

Walls and Macia replaced local attorney John Tinney Jr., who was part of the defense team when Blankenship was indicted last year.

Blankenship’s defense team also includes two other Zuckerman Spaeder attorneys — Steven Herman and Richard Miles Clark.

Herman’s credentials include helping represent the former CEO of an online banking company who’d received a $5.3 million award from his former employer. Clark was involved in the Strauss-Kahn and Howard cases.

Beyond the six main players on his defense team, it’s not clear how many attorneys are working on Blankenship’s case. Members of the defense team would not divulge the precise number of attorneys.

Blankenship’s team of defense lawyers isn’t cheap. According to a 2007 article in the Washingtonian outlining D.C.’s top 800 lawyers, clients could expect to pay $500 to $800 an hour for Taylor’s services. It also noted that Taylor had a retainer between $100,000 to $200,000. That was even before Taylor was involved in many of his more prominent cases. In the same article, Brown’s hourly fees were listed between $400 and $800.

In a May ruling, Delaware Chancery Court Judge Andre G. Bouchard determined that Blankenship was entitled to have Alpha Natural Resources — which bought Massey in 2011 — pay for his legal fees. When the ruling was made, court filings indicated that, between Blankenship’s November 2014 indictment and April 1, his legal fees had amounted to $5.8 million.

Blankenship’s legal fees became more complicated recently, when Alpha filed a motion to shed its obligation to Blankenship as part of its bankruptcy proceedings.

Even with their high hourly rates, when the Blankenship defense team first came to Charleston, Hissam said many in the legal community were skeptical that the Zuckerman Spaeder team could comfortably talk about coal mining.

“They’ve completely disproved that,” Hissam said.

Reach Joel Ebert at 304-348-4843, joel.ebert@wvgazettemail.com or follow @joelebert29 on Twitter.

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