Feds: Blankenship lawyers trying to dodge real issues

Federal prosecutors say that attorneys for Don Blankenship are trying to dodge the real issues that must be confronted when the former Massey Energy CEO faces trial in October on charges that he conspired to violate mine safety laws and lied to securities regulators and investors about Massey’s safety practices.

In a new court filing, prosecutors argue that mine safety rules were violated “thousands of times” at Massey’s Upper Big Branch with Blankenship’s “full knowledge and under his close supervision.” They say that many of those violations “were never caught because of successful efforts to block federal safety regulators from finding them.”

And after Upper Big Branch blew up and 29 miners died, prosecutors say, Blankenship made “a fantastical claim” —that his company “did not condone any violation” of mine safety laws and strove to be in compliance with “all regulations at all times.”

“There is no hiding these straightforward facts,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby. “So the defendant has adopted a strategy that is familiar to him: Talk about anything besides the plain requirements of the law.”

Ruby made those arguments as part of a new government brief outlining the sorts of evidence that prosecutors want U.S. District Judge Irene Berger to block defense lawyers from presenting when Blankenship’s trial starts on Oct. 1.

On Tuesday evening, both sides in the case filed “motions in limine,” or motions made before the start of a trial to prevent certain material from being presented to the jury. Defense lawyers for Blankenship filed 16 separate motions, while prosecutors filed one motion that outlined 11 types of material they want Berger to block from the trial.

Blankenship faces charges that he conspired to violate mine safety standards before the mine disaster and, after the explosion, lied to securities regulators and investors about Massey safety policies in an effort to stop stock prices from plummeting amid widespread media reports about problems at the company’s mines.

Among other things, Ruby asked Berger to block from the trial evidence about claims that Massey operated safe mines despite its large number of federal violations and information about “political considerations concerning the coal industry.”

Ruby noted that Blankenship often takes credit for “placing reflective stripes on mines’ clothing and using improved hardhats,” but argued that “evidence of alternative safety measures or assessments that are intended to serve as substitutes for the requirements of the law” are not admissible in court. Ruby called these efforts Blankenship’s “own homegrown safety program,” but said those measures did not remove Massey’s obligation to follow the law.

Ruby urged Berger not to allow defense lawyers to make the case about Blankenship’s belief that he is “the target of a sprawling, shadowy political conspiracy” or about Massey’s “purported effect on job creation and employment in the state of West Virginia” or the “economic difficulties facing the coal industry in this state and nationally.”

“Defendant has a long history of public attempts to distract attention from his illegal safety violations by pointing to anything other than the law,” Ruby wrote. “His pleadings in this case have continued that approach.

“Judging from this track record, defendant may seek to use a wide variety of irrelevant and inadmissible evidence and argument to obtain an acquittal on a basis not warranted by law. The court must vigilantly guard against that possibility.”

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

Funerals for Monday, January 27, 2020

Davis, Valerie - 11 a.m., Cunningham Memorial Park, St. Albans.

Hamrick, Leonard - 1 p.m., Waters Funeral Chapel, Summersville.

Hughes Jr., Denver - 1 p.m., Curry Funeral Home, Alum Creek.

Keen, Cora - 2 p.m., Tyler Mountain Memory Gardens, Cross Lanes.

Lazear, Elizabeth - 7 p.m., Keller Funeral Home, Dunbar.

Masters, Delores - 1 p.m., Glen Ferris Apostolic Church, Glen Ferris.

Milroy, Miller - 11 a.m., Simons-Coleman Funeral Home, Richwood.

Petro, Edith - 11 a.m., Cunningham-Parker-Johnson Funeral Home, Charleston.

Phelps, Herbert - 2 p.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Hurricane.

Stanley, Gary - 1 p.m., Pryor Funeral Home, East Bank.

Stewart, Donna - 1 p.m., First United Methodist Church, South Charleston.

Walker, Iva - 1 p.m., Roush Funeral Home, Ravenswood.

Wilkinson, Catharine - Noon, Raynes Funeral Home, Eleanor Chapel.

Williams, Joseph - 3 p.m., Tyler Mountain Memory Gardens, Cross Lanes.