On April 6, U.S. District Court Judge Irene Berger sentenced former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship to one year in jail and a $250,000 fine for conspiring to violate federal health and safety standards at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. The mine exploded and killed 29 miners in April 2010.
In an April 7 New York Times op-ed, CPR Member Scholar Rena Steinzor, Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, explained the significance of Blankenship's conviction and sentence and what it portends for other top managers and CEOs:
"The first C.E.O. ever to be convicted of conspiring to violate industrial safety standards will soon take his place in prison.
"The sentence is noteworthy, however, not because of the law, but in spite of it. The Mine Safety and Health Act, the statute under which Mr. Blankenship was convicted, treats the worst criminal violations as mere misdemeanors."
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"The burden successfully shouldered by the prosecutors in this case…should be a salutary warning to other industrial executives. True, the defendant had a habit, unfortunate for him, of recording the bullying instructions he issued to subordinates, and was notorious in coal country for his contempt for government and regulators. But he also had the best defense money could buy and he represented an industry that brought precious jobs to a depressed area. Even so, he was found guilty by jurors from a community largely dependent on companies like his."
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"Business interests have largely prevailed in their resistance to efforts to modernize … workplace safety and health laws, which date from the 1970s and, over the intervening decades, have grown stale in the face of emerging hazardous technologies. Congress should amend the mine safety and occupational safety acts to rank systematic violations by top executives as felonies and to increase the sentences available to judges for white-collar criminals like Mr. Blankenship."
Read previous CPRBlog posts by Steinzor on the Blankenship case: