Former coal baron Donald Blankenship will stay in jail for now after an appeals court upheld his conviction for flouting mine-safety laws.
The self-described “political prisoner” didn’t identify any reversible errors in his 2016 trial on charges he ignored safety rules at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine, a federal appeals court said Jan. 19. The government began probing Massey’s operations after a 2010 explosion killed 29 workers at the site.
Blankenship’s conviction marked the first time a major energy company’s top executive was jailed over a workplace crime. He’s serving a year sentence at a minimum-security prison camp in Taft, California, and is due to be released May 10, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
U.S. District Judge Irene Berger properly allowed jurors to find Blankenship guilty of a willful violation of safety laws if they concluded his actions amounted to a “reckless disregard” for those statutes, a three-judge panel of the Richmond, Virginia-based appeals court wrote in a 34-page opinion.
William Taylor, Blankenship’s lawyer, didn’t immediately return a call for comment on the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals panel’s decision.
The 66-year-old coal executive has argued his criticism of President Barack Obama and his support of Republican political candidates, such as president-elect Donald Trump, made him the target of a politically motivated case over the mine disaster.
Jurors convicted Blankenship of a misdemeanor conspiracy charge of ignoring safety standards at Massey’s operations. The conviction carried a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $250,000 fine. The former chief executive officer was cleared of three felony counts, which carried more substantial prison time.
Once one of the most powerful men in West Virginia, Blankenship spent millions backing political candidates friendly to the coal-industry. At the height of his career in 2009, he made more than $18 million in salary and bonuses. Blankenship stepped down as Massey’s top executive with a $12 million retirement package after the Upper Big Branch tragedy.
In a booklet written from the minimum-security prison where he’s serving time, Blankenship describes himself as an “American political prisoner” who faced a biased jury and an unfriendly judge in the criminal case.
The case is U.S v. Blankenship, 16-4193, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit (Richmond).
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