By: Jason Rosenbaum  April 12, 2010    

Don Blankenship is the head of Massey Energy, the company that runs the Upper Big Branch Mine which just had a horrific “accident” that left 29 dead. Massey’s conduct under Blankenship has been negligent enough to approach criminality, calling into question how much of an “accident” this was. Leo Gerard, head of the United Steelworkers, makes that point:

Since 2005, regulators cited Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine 1,342 times for safety infractions and charged Massey $1.89 million in fines, $1.3 million of which Massey is contesting. Of the violations, 86 were for failing to obey a ventilation plan to control explosive methane gas and coal dust. These are the very factors suspected in Monday’s deadly blast. Regulators issued 12 of those citations in the past month, and miners told the New York Times that dangerous gas accumulation forced evacuations of the mine several times in recent weeks. Regulators found two violations on Monday, before the explosion.

In January, agencies imposed the largest fines in the mine’s history for two violations, including one case in which a mine foreman admitted he’d known of a ventilation problem for three weeks. In 2008, Massey paid what federal prosecutors said was the largest settlement in the history of the coal industry — $4.2 million in criminal fines and civil penalties — after a subsidiary pleaded guilty to criminal mine safety violations for a January, 2006 fire that killed two workers in Massey’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine. In addition those deaths at a Massey mine and the 29 killed Monday at Upper Big Branch, three other miners died at the Upper Big Branch mine since 1998.

The Charleston Gazette reported:

“In seven of the last 10 years, the mine has recorded a non-fatal injury rate worse than the national average for similar operations, according to MSHA statistics.”

Massey fights these safety citations by appealing them to federal courts, and they appeal more citations than any other company. Put simply, Massey under Blankenship’s lead knowingly cuts corners on safety to make more money. And indeed, that deadly strategy is paying off, with Massey’s stock upgraded to “buy” after Wall Street determined the loss of almost 30 people wouldn’t affect the bottom line.

Blankenship does more than run the killing machine that is Massey Energy. He’s heavily involved in politics as well. Blankenship is on the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and he’s been heavily involved in electing state judges who are favorable to his business interests.

In the most famous instance, Blankenship poured $3 million of his own money into a campaign to elect Brent Benjamin to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. When a case involving Massey Energy came before Benjamin in 2007, the plaintiff, Hugh Caperton, petitioned to have Benjamin recused from the case on the grounds that the extraordinary sums spent by Blankenship – more than any other spending by Benjamin supporters and Benjamin’s campaign put together – represented a conflict of interest. Benjamin refused, Caperton appealed, and in 2009 in the decision of Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., the Supreme Court ruled that Caperton was denied due process do to the extreme conflict of interest presented by Blankenship’s spending.

But West Virginia isn’t the only place Blankenship meddles in judicial elections. As a board member of the Chamber of Commerce, he gets a direct hand in how they spend their money. And over the last decade, the Chamber has spent over $50 million to elect judges that agree with their ideological position.

Blankenship and the Chamber of Commerce get what they pay for.

For instance, in Michigan, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, using money from the national organization, has spent millions on judicial races each cycle. The amount of money in Michigan’s elections has drawn notice, with funding from independent expenditure groups like the Chamber and PACs far outstripping the amount spent by campaigns. One of the judges the Chamber spent millions to elect in 2000 was Judge Robert Young of the Michigan Supreme Court. Beyond his pro-business rulings, Young has paid back the Chamber and Blankenship in spades, co-signing an amicus brief [pdf] in 2009 that is chock full of citations to extreme right wing judicial thought to the Supreme Court in the Caperton v. Massey case. Of course, the brief argued against judicial recusal. And of course, Young is up again for re-election this year.

The situation in which the Chamber and Don Blankenship spend millions to elect judges and get favorable rulings and amicus briefs in return is similar the situation in Caperton v. Massey. There is an appearance of a quid-pro-quo and a conflict of interest, especially given that Chamber spending usually outstrips spending by campaigns, parties, and other interest groups. Some logical questions follow: How much money is Young expecting to receive in supporting ads from the Chamber this cycle? And how many of the other judges and former judges who co-signed the brief received significant support from the Chamber?

As Peter Luke notes, $45 million has been spent for and against judicial candidates by outside groups in Michigan alone since 2000, but the only reason anyone would ever know these totals is if they ask television stations for their ad numbers. No disclosure of the amount of spending is required. I wonder how much the Chamber and Blankenship have spent nationwide. I’m not sure we’ll ever know the answer under current law.

Meanwhile, Massey Energy gets to go on with business as usual.

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