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Businessman Donald Leon “Don” Blankeship is a longtime coal company executive and a controversial figure in the West Virginia coalfields. Blankenship was born March 14, 1950, at Stopover, Kentucky, and raised at Delorme, in neighboring Mingo County, West Virginia. He is a graduate of the former Matewan High School, has an accounting degree from Marshall University, and is a certified public accountant.

In 1982 Blankenship joined Rawl Sales & Processing Company, an A. T. Massey Coal Company subsidiary based in Mingo County. Leading the company’s successful efforts to defeat the United Mine Workers union in its 1984-85 strike against Rawl and other Massey operations, Blankenship rapidly advanced within the organization. He became president of Massey Coal Services in 1989 and president and chief operating officer in 1991. In 1992 he became Massey’s president, chief executive officer, and chairman of the board. When A. T. Massey disaffiliated from Fluor Corporation, becoming Massey Energy in 2000, Blankenship continued as Massey chairman and CEO. He left Massey on December 31, 2010, following an explosion earlier that year that killed 29 men at the company’s Upper Big Branch mine. Massey was sold to Alpha Natural Resources on June 1, 2011.

Blankenship presided over an expansion of Massey’s resources and mining activities, with the Richmond-based company becoming the largest coal producer in Central Appalachia and fourth-largest in the United States. Massey experienced major disasters during the period of his leadership, as well. The worst of these disasters included the 2000 coal slurry spill in Martin County, Kentucky, and the deadly 2006 Aracoma mine fire in Logan County, West Virginia, as well as the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in Raleigh County, West Virginia.

Since 1998 Massey and its corporate successor and Don Blankenship personally have been caught up in litigation arising from company practices during the period when Blankenship was at its head. Prominent among these lawsuits was litigation arising from a 2006 mine fire which killed two men at Massey’s Aracoma mine and a long-running civil suit brought by coal operator Hugh Caperton. In Caperton v. A. T. Massey, it was charged that Massey had acted fraudulently toward Caperton’s Harman Mining Company, driving the smaller Harman Mining Company out of business. Caperton was awarded $50 million in damages at the initial trial in Boone County Circuit Court, but the award was overturned on two separate occasions by the West Virginia Supreme Court.

While the case was working its way toward the state Supreme Court, Blankenship involved himself in the 2004 political campaign in support of the election of Brent Benjamin as a new justice on the court. Blankenship gave $3 million to a nonprofit organization opposing the re-election of Benjamin’s opponent, liberal incumbent justice Warren McGraw. Benjamin defeated McGraw with Blankenship’s support and later declined to recuse himself from the Caperton appeal. He voted in 2007 with a 3-2 majority to overturn the $50 million judgment against Massey, which had grown substantially with the accrual of interest. The U. S. Supreme Court later ruled that the appearance of a conflict of interest in this matter was so “extreme” that Justice Benjamin in fact should have recused himself. In 2009, when the case came back to the West Virginia Supreme Court with Benjamin standing aside, the state court again overturned the original Boone County judgment against Massey.

Circumstances surrounding the Caperton case were further muddied with the publication in 2008 of photographs showing Don Blankenship vacationing on the French Riviera with West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Elliot E. “Spike” Maynard in 2006. Maynard later participated with Justice Benjamin in the 2007 majority overturning the judgment against Massey.

After more than 17 years the Caperton case remains active in state courts in Virginia, where the Harman mine was located. Caperton v. Massey was the subject of Laurence Leamer’s 2013 book, The Price of Justice, and best-selling author John Grisham said that he modeled The Appeal, his 2008 novel, on the Benjamin story. In The Appeal, a fictional businessman in another state and another industry arranges for the election of a sympathetic state supreme court justice while the businessman’s appeal of a large court judgment is making its way toward the court on which the new justice will serve. Don Blankenship was portrayed unfavorably in Michael Shnayerson’s 2008 book, Coal River, and is frequently the subject of news accounts and editorial writing.

Blankenship’s legal situation was greatly compounded in November 2014 when he was indicted on criminal charges by a federal grand jury. In three felony counts, it was charged that Blankenship conspired to violate mine safety standards, worked to thwart federal mine inspectors, and attempted to deceive the Securities and Exchange Commission and the investing public regarding Massey’s safety practices. While the indictments emphasize the Upper Big Branch operations, Blankenship was not charged in the deaths of the miners in the mine explosion there.

The trial of Don Blankenship on criminal charges began in October 2015 in Charleston. After 24 days of testimony, the federal jury deliberated for nine days before finding Blankenship guilty of conspiring to willfully violate mine safety standards, a misdemeanor. He was found not guilty of securities fraud and of making false statements. On April 6, 2016, he received the maximum sentence: one year in prison, one year of supervised release, and a $250,000 fine.

Last Revised on April 06, 2016


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e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia "Don Blankenship." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 06 April 2016. Web. 23 October 2018.

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