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Feds switch lawyers again in Blankenship case

The Trump administration has changed lawyers for the second time in as many weeks in former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship’s effort to have his criminal mine safety conviction thrown out, court records filed Wednesday confirmed.

Douglas Squires, an assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, filed a formal notice indicating that he would be handling the case, which is still pending before U.S. District Judge Irene C. Berger, in federal court in Beckley.

An amended “notice of recusal” filed with Berger repeats that U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart of Southern West Virginia was recused from the case, but skips over the previous appointment of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky, Robert Duncan Jr., to handle the case for the federal government.

Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle declined to explain the reasons for either of the changes in which prosecutor’s office would be handling Blankenship’s case.

In a prepared statement, U.S. Attorney Benjamin Glassman of Southern Ohio said that the Justice Department “strives to pursue all matters fairly and impartially and so recuses a United States Attorney’s Office from the handling of a criminal case whenever either a conflict of interest exists or there is an appearance of a loss of impartiality.” Glassman did not provide further explanation of the situation in Blankenship’s case.

Blankenship, who spent a year in prison, is trying to have his conviction tossed because he says federal prosecutors and the federal Labor Department did not turn over hundreds of pages of documents that would have been helpful to his defense. Justice Department lawyers need to respond to his legal maneuver on behalf of the federal government.

Blankenship was convicted in 2015 of conspiracy to violate federal mine safety and health standards at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine, in Raleigh County, where 29 miners died in an April 2010 explosion. While some of the specific documents Blankenship points to were not turned over before trial, the central issues in those documents were the subject of extensive testimony, including lengthy cross-examinations at trial by Blankenship’s defense team.

Stuart is a former West Virginia Republican Party chairman who was appointed to the U.S. Attorney post by President Donald Trump. In 2006, Stuart ran for the House of Delegates during an election cycle in which Blankenship spent several million dollars to support GOP candidates and oppose Democratic incumbents, including in the House district where Stuart was a candidate. Stuart finished eighth in a race in which six Democratic incumbents and one Democratic newcomer won the seven available seats.

When the Kentucky U.S. Attorney’s office was initially appointed to handle the matter, Blankenship issued a May 25 news release criticizing the change in government lawyers, saying it is part of an effort by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to uphold a “corruptly achieved misdemeanor conviction.” Nine days later, on June 3, Blankenship issued another release in which he said his lawyers had been informed the government had switched attorneys again.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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