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Don Blankenship Is an American Criminal

October 07, 2016
Karl Cates

Donald Leon “Don” Blankenship, the former head of Massey Energy who is serving federal prison time for his role in the deaths of 29 coal miners six years ago in West Virginia, got beaucoup headline treatment this week for issuing a “manifesto” in which he pronounces himself an “American political prisoner.”

Give the man kudos for a stunt that got traction.

There’s his phrase “American political prisoner” on top of a story published by the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday and on an article disseminated far and wide by the Associated Press. It appears over and over again in the state where it hurts the most — on far-reaching West Virginia Public Broadcasting, on West Virginia Metro News (the “voice of West Virginia) and on small-town news sites hither and yon across the state.

Let’s hit pause here and review what Blankenship did.

He conspired to violate mining health and safety standards in the run-up to the explosion that claimed those 29 lives on April 5, 2010, at the Upper Big Branch mine south of Charleston. That’s why he’s behind bars now, albeit for not that long a time or at that hard core a prison. Blankenship is already midway through his one-year stretch at Taft Correctional Institute, a minimum-security facility in sunny Southern California. He gets out in April.

He was the best-paid U.S. coal-industry executive the year before the Upper Big Branch disaster and when the mine exploded he was sitting on mountains of money. And apparently still is.

Which isn’t quite right, as IEEFA’s Tom Sanzillo observed several months ago (“Convicted Coal Baron Should Be Required to Disgorge His Ill-Gotten Gains”).

“It seems a tad unfair that Blankenship—who is probably worth $100 million based on his Massey compensation over the years (if he’s worth less, he should find a new accountant)—be allowed to keep the largesse he has pocketed by risking worker health and safety.”

By touting himself as the victim now, Blankenship only adds the most vulgar of insults to the already unthinkable injury that came of his behavior. He must think people have short memories, or perhaps no memories at all. And while his letter-from-prison salvo was a success by some measure—it got attention—time may preserve it eventually as one of the greatest unintended ironies in the history of convict spin.

Political prisoners, as a rule, tend not to be “the leader of a conspiracy to promote lawlessness across an entire enterprise,” as Booth Goodwin, the U.S. attorney who prosecuted Blankenship, said in response to Blankenship’s tirade.

What Blankenship maybe ought to be working on instead during the six months he has left to kill in his quarters out west is a manifesto on where he went wrong and how he might rightfully repent.

It would say Donald Leon “Don” Blankenship is not an American political prisoner.

And play up the part about how he’s an American criminal.

Karl Cates is IEEFA’s director of media relations.


Convicted Coal Baron Should Be Required to Disgorge His Ill-Gotten Gains

Accountability in Coal Country: The World Is Watching the Don Blankenship Trial

Karl Cates

Former IEEFA Transition Policy Analyst Karl Cates has been an editor for Bloomberg LP, an editor for the New York Times, and a consultant to the Treasury Department-sanctioned community development financial institution (CDFI) industry.

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