As Blankenship faces trial, his politics dominant in WV

Before last year’s elections, before he was indicted, one year before he would go to trial, West Virginia Democrats warned that Don Blankenship was trying to buy the state.

“Why are out-of-state billionaires trying to buy West Virginia?” one flier from the state party blared, next to pictures of Blankenship and the Koch brothers. “Only you can stop them.”

For Blankenship, at least, there’s no proof that allegation was true, and as a political strategy, it certainly didn’t work.

There is no record of Blankenship making any political donations in West Virginia in 2014, and Republicans made unprecedented gains — winning the statehouse for the first time in eight decades and winning every available congressional seat.

But those gains were engineered, in part, by Blankenship’s longtime personal aides and political operatives, who continue to hold outsize influence in state Republican politics. And, as Blankenship faces three felonies and up to 30 years in jail in perhaps the highest profile trial in West Virginia history, he still casts a long shadow over West Virginia politics.

Blankenship’s favored policies — lower taxes, anti-union measures, pro-business legal reform and the easing of coal industry regulations — have mostly been implemented, in part because as the state has shifted toward the GOP his ex-lieutenants have been successful in helping Republican candidates get elected.

Before the 2010 explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 miners, Blankenship was already famous for battling unions, for accusations that he prioritized coal production over safety and environmental concerns and for his prodigious political spending.

Blankenship was a source of both money and influence for state Republicans in the 2000s, a difficult time for the party long before taking control of the Legislature seemed plausible.

“Over the last 12 years, we’ve become a much more Republican state and a lot of that goes back to the involvement of a lot of folks over the last 12 years,” state Republican Chairman Conrad Lucas said.

In 2002, Blankenship gave $100,000 so state Republicans could buy a new headquarters, just days before such “soft money” donations were outlawed, according to Gary Abernathy, former director of the state Republican Party.

His political spending in subsequent years dwarfed that of any other state Republican.

“Don was a real patriot for so many conservative causes earlier last decade,” Rob Cornelius, Blankenship’s longtime aide and now a state Republican operative, said in a phone interview. “In the absence of an effective state party, he played an important role, frankly, for several years. Whether that was good or bad, someone had to do it and he stepped up and manned up and did it.”

As he faces a trial that could land him in prison for the rest of his life, Blankenship contends that, in a state dominated for decades by Democrats, the charges against him are about scapegoating a prominent Republican. “If they put me behind bars ... it will be political,” Blankenship wrote two years ago. His lawyers have continued that tactic, blaming “the West Virginia Democratic establishment’s long-standing hatred” for him. Prosecutors call those allegations absurd and say that, for years, Blankenship routinely conspired to violate mine safety standards and then cover it up.

The prosecutor in the case, Democratic U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, is widely rumored to be considering a gubernatorial run.

In 2005, Blankenship spent nearly $400,000 to try to get the sales tax on food repealed. The next year, the food tax was cut in half, a Republican idea that Democrats embraced. In 2013, the food tax was gone.

Blankenship spent years battling the United Mine Workers of America, to the point where nearly all of Massey’s mines were eventually non-union. Among the top priorities of the new Republican Legislature have been the reform or repeal of the state’s prevailing wage law, and passing a “right to work” law, both ideas loathed by unions.

Blankenship has, for years, rejected the mainstream scientific consensus on climate change. That’s something he shares with much of the West Virginia Legislature and much of the national Republican Party. Last spring, the Legislature passed, overwhelmingly, a bill to make it more difficult for the state to comply with federal efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The Legislature also repealed the state’s largely toothless alternative energy portfolio, after the state coal industry reversed its prior support of the measure.

Even prior to the disaster at Upper Big Branch, Blankenship’s mines were plagued with safety violations at rates higher than other major coal producers. He has testified, under oath, that sometimes coal producers simply cannot comply with the law. Last spring, over loud protests from the UMWA, the Legislature passed a first-ever rollback of some mine safety standards that the coal industry said were outdated.

In 2008, before a Massey subsidiary paid a then-record fine for criminal safety violations in the death of two miners in Logan County, a lawyer for that company, Aracoma Coal, attempted to use the state’s “deliberate intent” law to argue against a wrongful death case in a civil suit.

The deliberate intent law was changed by the Legislature last year to make it harder to sue, with Republicans arguing that the law was being misinterpreted by the state Supreme Court and exploited by trial lawyers.

The change passed easily, despite the public testimony of mine disaster survivors and families.

“I lost my father at the Upper Big Branch Mine in an accident caused by the negligence of the company,” said Jeremy Ellswick, speaking at a public hearing protesting the change. “This bill is a hindrance.”

It was one of a handful of defendant and business-friendly legal reform bills passed by Republicans in their first year in power, a priority they shared with Blankenship.

“Ten plus years ago he was largely advocating for a lot of tort reform in the state, which has always been a part of the Republican platform,” Lucas said.

Cornelius said: “The things that we were seeking 10 or 12 years ago, we’ve had some success with and are still part of the party mission. We have a lot further to go.”

Cornelius and Greg Thomas both served as personal spokesmen and aides to Blankenship while he ran Massey Energy in the mid-2000s. As political operatives, they spent millions of dollars of Blankenship’s money to advance conservative causes, with varying degrees of success.

Today, they do essentially the same thing, but for different bosses.

“He put together a team of young folks around him that have frankly gone on to do a lot of important work since then and we couldn’t be any prouder to the work we did and the work we’re doing now,” Cornelius said.

Thomas, until this year, ran West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, advocating legal changes to benefit defendants and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars from undisclosed sources to elect conservative legislative candidates. He ran six legislative campaigns in 2014 (five of them successful) and is now working with Republican leadership in the state Senate to establish a statewide network to support GOP candidates.

Cornelius chairs the Wood County Republican Party, recruits legislative candidates statewide and is something of a political trickster, filing handfuls of ethics complaints and Freedom of Information Act requests targeting Democrats. (He’s also a TV analyst for Ohio University sports.)

Blankenship’s most notorious episode of political spending came in 2004, when his political action committee, “And for the Sake of the Kids,” run by Thomas and Cornelius, spent more than $3 million (most of it Blankenship’s own money) to get Justice Brent Benjamin elected to the state Supreme Court.

Benjamin would then cast a deciding vote in a case between Massey and independent coal operator Hugh Caperton. The U.S. Supreme Court then threw out that verdict, ruling that Benjamin should have recused himself. Justice Elliot “Spike” Maynard also recused himself from that case after pictures surfaced of him on vacation with Blankenship in the French Riviera. Maynard, who died last year, would later switch parties, becoming a Republican in order to run for Congress.

“Spike and I used to talk about what this moment would feel like,” Thomas wrote, after Republicans won the state Legislature.

The Massey-Caperton case, now in Virginia courts and in its 17th year, could end up outlasting both Maynard and Benjamin’s tenure on the court.

Benjamin faces Beth Walker, a Morgantown attorney, in his re-election campaign. (Judicial elections are now, for the first time, nonpartisan in West Virginia, but both Benjamin and Walker have previously run as Republicans.) Ironically, Thomas, who was as responsible as anyone for Benjamin’s initial election, no longer supports him.

“How could I spend $5 million electing someone and then try to beat them?” Thomas asked rhetorically in a phone interview. “Well, good thing I got an answer.”

Thomas said that the “And for the Sake of the Kids” campaign was about defeating then-Justice Warren McGraw more than it was about getting Benjamin elected.

He pointed to research conducted by WVCALA — which is now run by Roman Stauffer, his former aide and another alum of “And for the Sake of the Kids” — that shows Benjamin often voted with the court’s more liberal justices.

“Flashback from 2004 to now, those of us who want fair courts were actively against McGraw, and now we’re actively for Beth Walker,” Thomas, who co-hosted an August fundraiser for Walker, said.

That essentially tracks with what Blankenship has said about his own spending in the 2004 election.

“I don’t know who you are,” Blankenship recalled telling Benjamin, in a 2009 interview with the New York Times. “I’ve hardly been able to find out anything about you, but I don’t like McGraw.”

Walker, incidentally, has her own connection to Blankenship. In 2008, before her (unsuccessful) campaign for the Supreme Court, she met with Blankenship at his office in Kentucky prior to announcing her run.

Cornelius said he was “somewhat” pleased with Benjamin’s 11 years on the bench, but it would be inappropriate for a county party chair to endorse either candidate in an election that is similar to a primary.

“I don’t want to say a bad word,” Cornelius said. “I don’t want to bury Brent Benjamin.”

Asked about the switch in allegiances of his former benefactors, Benjamin said, “More than most, I suppose, I understand the concerns about perceptions of influences on courts. As a judge I have a voting record, it proves that I am fair, impartial and independent and this absolutely confirms that.”

Blankenship spent even more money in 2006, in an effort to swing the state Legislature Republican. (Republicans ended up losing four seats in the House and two seats in the Senate.)

In total, Blankenship spent a little more than $5.1 million in 2006 on independent expenditures and “electioneering communications.” A little more than $5 million of that was overseen by Thomas personally or by his company, Targeted Communications Strategies.

“Most of the time, if I was talking politics with him, it would be just me and him somewhere,” Thomas said of Blankenship, in a 2008 deposition related to the deaths of two miners at the Aracoma Mine.

Thomas has since worked for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Maloney and Congressman David McKinley.

“Greg has always been heavily involved in outside expenditures,” Lucas said. “I would label him the top in-state political Republican consultant.”

In the 2014 elections, Thomas ran the winning campaigns of state Sens. Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio; Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha; Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha; Jeff Mullins, R-Raleigh, and Delegate Brad White, R-Kanawha. He also ran the unsuccessful Senate campaign of Republican Duane Zobrist in Greenbrier County.

Thomas also conducted all of WVCALA’s political spending in 2014. The nonprofit, which has long refused to disclose its donors, spent a little more than $288,000 on 57 legislative candidates, advertising both in favor of Republicans and against Democrats. (It also spent money in support of two Democrats, Delegate Rupie Phillips, of Logan County, and Sen. Ron Stollings of Boone County.)

“I have spent ten years working on changing the leadership of the WV Legislature,” Thomas wrote after the Republican victories in November. “Words can not express how thrilled I am this morning.”

Going forward, Thomas is working with the Senate president and majority leader to develop a centralized infrastructure to aid Republican candidates and challengers in the Senate.

“I’m working real closely with Bill Cole and Mitch Carmichael on this stuff,” Thomas said. “This is the first time we’ve ever done this, kind of like a state Senate caucus, essentially a Republican state Senate caucus.”

Cornelius is also working with the state party to find and recruit candidates in the hopes of growing the Republican majority. “I’m kind of the chessboard guy in a lot of this stuff,” he said. “Trying to fill out the ballot and making sure we have better people.”

Lucas described him as “among the top political operatives in the state.”

He also employs, what could be called, political tricks.

He’s known to file ethics complaints against Democratic lawmakers by the dozen. He’s filed at least 31 Freedom of Information Act requests with the governor’s office since 2012.

Last year, he started a political action committee called “Skaff-Obama Team” in an apparent attempt to discredit then-Delegate Doug Skaff, although the PAC never spent any money.

“He’s bad news. You want me to say it again? He’s bad news,” said Republican Delegate Frank Deem, who has feuded with Cornelius in Wood County. The county Republican executive committee tried unsuccessfully to remove Cornelius as county chairman after he played a role in getting the Democratic mayor to resign, allegedly threatened a process server with a baseball bat and accused Deem’s wife of assault.

Lucas and Thomas both declined to comment on the upcoming Blankenship trial, but Cornelius did not.

“He was a very good man and friend to me over the years,” Cornelius said of Blankenship. “I certainly hope that whatever justice happens is correct, the justice to him and justice to anyone else affected by the mines.”

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com, 304-348-5119 or follow @davidlgutman 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.