Don Blankenship might finally see the inside of a prison cell. Six years after a tragic explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia killed 29 miners, former Massey Energy CEO Blankenship has been found guilty of conspiring to violate mine safety laws.
This misdemeanor conviction against Blankenship came with a one-year prison sentence, far less than the 30 years the CEO could have faced had he been found guilty of the multiple felony charges brought against him. And far less than many think he deserves.
Post-tragedy reports, Pizzigati also noted, found Massey Energy, the nation’s fourth largest coal producer, “directly to blame” for the deadly 2010 explosion.
“Under Blankenship,” these reports revealed, “Massey managers kept two sets of books, one accurate for internal use and another fake for regulators.”
Safety just happened to be an unnecessary distraction for Blankenship and the workers. Only maximizing profits mattered to him, and his workers would pay the ultimate price for that accounting.
In a searing interview following Blankenship’s sentencing, former Massey employee Tommy Davis recounts losing his brother, his nephew, and his son in the blast. Choking back tears, Davis tells us that Blankenship never once tried to contact him in the six years after their deaths.
“I miss my family. He hugged his,” says Davis. “And all he gets is a year.”
Davis feels we need “much stricter penalties for people like that who put greed and money over human life,” but corporate executives today still rarely have to take a perp walk. Remember all the Wall Street bankers brought out in handcuffs for tanking the global economy? Me neither.
According to federal regulators, Blankenship is the first high-ranking executive to be convicted of a workplace safety violation. His lawyer has vowed he will appeal the one-year prison sentence, the maximum allowable for the crime.
Don Blankenship will remain an exceptionally wealthy man and might still wiggle his way out of spending time behind bars. The judge that sentenced him has denied requests for restitution, both from the miners’ families and from the company Blankenship left behind, now in bankruptcy.
Tommy Davis is right. We do need much stricter penalties for those who value profit over people. It shouldn’t take another tragedy like the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion to bring about this change.
Josh Hoxie directs the Project on Opportunity and Taxation at the Institute for Policy Studies. He is the co-author of the recent study, Billionaire Bonanza: The Forbes 400 and the Rest of Us.