Federal prosecutors defend Blankenship conviction

Federal prosecutors defend Blankenship conviction

 

Federal prosecutors on Monday urged an appeals court to uphold last year’s landmark conviction of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship for a mine safety conspiracy.

“The only thing novel about the charge against defendant is that, in this case, it was pursued against the CEO of a major mining company, instead of against low-ranking miners,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby wrote in a brief filed with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Late Monday night, Ruby filed a 97-page legal brief with the 4th Circuit, spelling out the federal government’s response to Blankenship’s appeal of his conviction.

“Defendant may believe himself to be more important than those past defendants, and perhaps though that his position insulated him from legal scrutiny,” Ruby wrote. “But there is nothing new about the legal authorities that were brought to bear in his prosecution.”

Blankenship, 66, has been in a federal prison in California since May, when the 4th Circuit turned down his bid to remain free until a decision was made on his appeal.

The longtime Massey Energy CEO, once one of the most powerful men in the region, was convicted in December by a federal jury of conspiracy to violate federal mine safety and health standards at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 workers died in an April 2010 explosion. U.S. District Judge Irene Berger sentenced Blankenship to one year in prison and a $250,000 fine, the maximum allowable sentence under current federal mining laws.

In appealing Blankenship’s conviction, his legal team argued that the case against Blankenship “advanced a novel prosecution theory” that sought to “criminalize management decisions about budgets for hiring miners and production targets.”

Coal associations from West Virginia, Ohio and Illinois filed a “friend of the court brief” that urged the 4th Circuit to closely scrutinize Blankenship’s conviction, arguing that safety citations are “an unavoidable fact of mining coal” and that “operating a coal mine is a difficult venture that presents tough decisions for its managers, who are required to navigate a regulatory minefield in order to operate a successful company.”

The 4th Circuit has scheduled oral argument in the case for 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 26 in Richmond, Virginia. A decision likely won’t come for several months after that argument. Blankenship is currently scheduled for release on May 10, 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons website.

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

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