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Coal Baron's Trial Spotlights Patterns in Corporate Prosecutions

The trial of coal baron Don Blankenship comes at a time of rising anger against CEOs who break the law, legal observers say. Brian Hayden/Wikimedia
The trial of coal baron Don Blankenship comes at a time of rising anger against CEOs who break the law, legal observers say. Brian Hayden/Wikimedia
October 12, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. - Coal baron Don Blankenship's high-profile trial is coming at a time of anger against corporate wrongdoing but experts say that anger still faces entrenched forces that protect executives.

Russell Mokhiber is the editor of Corporate Crime Reporter a legal newsletter based in Washington. He says Blankenship's prosecution comes at a time when people still are frustrated that no bank executives went to jail after the 2008 financial crisis.

"People are upset, people are angry," says Mokhiber. "People in the coalfields demanded Blankenship be prosecuted and he was. And now, you're seeing the same kind of push back against Volkswagen, against General Motors, right across the board."

Mokhiber says top corporate executives still are rarely prosecuted. He says they're typically removed from day-to-day operations where decisions to break the law happen.

Prosecutors portray Blankenship as a micromanager who set the policies that led to the 2010 disaster at Upper Big Branch that killed 29 miners. Blankenship has argued the accident was an act of God and that he's being singled out for his political positions.

Mokhiber says corporations and their executives often get the best lawyers money can buy. And he says some prosecutors will go easy on the companies because they know they can get well-paid positions with defense firms after they leave the government. Mokhiber says that can be a powerful motivator for a young government lawyer.

"And you're sitting across the table from lawyers a couple of years older, who've gone over to defend the corporations, and quadrupling their salaries," he says.

Mokhiber says you can see the anger at corporate wrongdoing in the press and in congressional hearings. But he says it's just half of what's playing out as a tug-of-war over the prosecutions.

"A debate within the Justice Department, within academia and in the public, but we haven't seen fundamental changes on the ground as of yet," says Mokhiber.

Blankenship was the CEO of Richmond-based Massey Energy before the Upper Big Branch disaster. In 2011 Massey was taken over by Bristol, Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - VA