Earlier today in Charleston, West Virginia, a jury heard four hours of closing statements from federal prosecutors and defense attorneys in the Don Blankenship criminal trial.
Don Blankenship is the former CEO of Massey Energy, the company that owned and managed the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County, where 29 miners were killed in April 2010 as the result of safety violations.
And he faces up to 30 years in prison if he’s convicted in this case.
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It’s a remarkable case because it’s almost unprecedented for a CEO of a major corporation, especially a fossil fuel corporation, to face criminal charges when workers die on the job.
But, there’s a catch!
The judge hearing the case, US District Judge Irene Berger, made sure before the closing arguments began to explain that Blankenship isn’t being charged for causing the explosion.
And that means that he’s not actually being charged for the deaths of those 29 miners.
So, what DID Blankenship do that warrants a federal investigation and criminal trial?
Why is the former CEO of one of the largest coal companies in the country facing 30 years in prison?
Not because he might be responsible for the deaths of 29 miners, not because he apparently micromanaged the cover-up of nearly 600 safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine.
But because he crossed the wrong people. Because he allegedly misled wealthy investors.
Stop and think about that, 29 people died under Blankenship’s watch and management.
And he’s facing charges for misleading regulators and wealthy investors.
According to the lead FBI agent investigating the disaster, Blankenship personally received DAILY REPORTS that summarized 587 safety violations issued to the mine in the months before the April explosion.
The prosecution alleges that under Blankenship’s management, Massey Energy had enough money on hand to hire more miners and to bring the mines into code.
But instead, he chose to cover up those violations and to hide the hazards from workers, and then he lied to federal investment regulators in a statement released to shareholders in the days after the explosion.
In other words, the prosecution is going every step of the way of proving that Blankenship is responsible for the deaths of 29 miners.
But the judge made it clear that this case isn’t about the deaths of the miners, this case is about whether he conspired to lie to rich people and the regulators who protect their investments.
Which actually makes this case anything but exceptional.
It’s almost predictable.
If a CEO is on trial after a corporate catastrophe where workers died, you can be reasonably certain that they aren’t being tried for murder.
No, they’re way more likely to be on trial for hurting their rich investors by letting those pesky workers die.
It was the same story back in September when Peanut Corporation of America CEO Stewart Parnell was sentenced to 28 years in prison after a salmonella outbreak killed nine and sickened hundreds across the country.
He wasn’t tried for murder, or even manslaughter, he wasn’t charged because people got sick.
He was charged because he defrauded his wealthy clients, clients like Kellogg and Trader Joe’s, billion-dollar corporate clients who used the contaminated peanuts in products ranging from crackers to pet food.
Because in the US, you can get away with murder, but you better not lie to or defraud rich people – you better not do anything to hurt their returns.
The problem is, our criminal legal system is rigged.
Ever since we deregulated Wall Street and stepped up the war on drugs during the Reagan Revolution, the system hasn’t been set up for justice.
It’s been set-up to afflict the afflicted and to comfort the comfortable, the exact opposite of justice.
Nearly 100,000 people across the country are serving time in federal prisons for drug offenses, with a disproportionate number of those people being poor, Black or Hispanic.
But a CEO would never go to jail for drug crimes, and apparently we can’t even send a CEO to jail when they are likely responsible for the deaths of dozens of miners.
If Blankenship goes to jail on these charges it’s because our criminal legal system only works on behalf of “the comfortable” – the investor class.
It’ll be good if Blankenship goes to jail in this case.
But it would be even better if the charges reflected the human cost of his actions, and not just the cost to investors.
It’s time to take back our criminal legal system, and to start holding CEOs and corporations accountable when their worship of money and unscrupulous pursuit of profits cost US lives.