Media Try to Get Access to Criminal Complaint Against Blankenship

You may remember Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship as the key figure in a Supreme Court case a few years ago over him essentially buying a seat on the West Virginia Supreme Court for a judge who later cast the deciding vote in an appeal that saved him tens of millions of dollars. He’s now been indicted on criminal charges for an explosion in one of the coal mines his company owns and the judge has sealed the complaint. Media outlets are trying to get that seal lifted:

Right now, the criminal indictment of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship — charged with responsibility for the deaths of 29 coal miners in an April 2010 mine explosion — is not available to the public. The families of the explosion’s victims, and the parties to the lawsuit, are not allowed to speak to the press. Court personnel are banned from making any statements to the media about what’s going on with the case.

All of those restrictions were placed by U.S. District Judge Irene Berger, who issued the sweeping gag order shortly after Blankenship’s indictment. But five prominent news organizations are challenging Judge Berger’s decision in court, saying the gag order unreasonably prevents the news media from reporting on a case too important to be ignored.

“A reporter’s First Amendment right to publish is meaningless if it is prevented from gathering news in the first place,” the legal challenge, filed by The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, National Public Radio, The Charleston Gazette, and the Friends of Public Broadcasting, reads. “In this case, the court’s gag order prevents the news media intervenors and other members of the press from court records and those most knowledgeable about it, the participants and those affected by the underlying events.”

Massey has a horrible safety record. The explosion at the core of these charges killed more than two dozen miners, the worst mining disaster in decades. And that single mine had been shut down 61 times in the 15 months leading up to the explosion for safety violations. Over a two year period, Massey was cited for safety violations 501 times; its three biggest rivals were cited a total of 175 times over that same period while mining twice as much coal as Massey. But I’m sure Blankenship’s bank account helps prevent him from feeling either guilt or responsibility.

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  • Modusoperandi

    Massey has a horrible safety record.

    To be fair, that shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s motto is “We’re the BP of coal!”

  • caseloweraz

    Despite his neglect of safety in his mines, DB is popular in certain parts of WV. It’s the old story: coal mining is one of the best-paying job — maybe the only job — in places of that benighted state.

    Given that popularity, Judge Berger’s gag order may be aimed at preventing violence.

  • abb3w

    I can see an argument for a temporary seal, lasting until jury selection and sequestration, in order to increase chances of an impartial jury; and the judge’s order appears to reflect such intent.

    However, since the judge did not put that time limit expressly into the order, it would appear inherently over-broad. At the very least, a higher court should give a more narrowly drawn order.

  • Donovan

    I lived just down the road from this mine at the time. The particular shaft had been closed because of ventilation issues, and the miners were concerned for their safety. Blankenship sent the order that any miner refusing to go in was to be fired.

    I was only in WV for school, but it was incredibly clear. In WV, you and your family are expendable company property. I met a lot of wonderful people there, but will never move back.