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Real Life Drama Unfolding in Blankenship Trial

During a recess at the trial of coal baron Don Blankenship, assistant prosecutor Steve Ruby stepped into the area where the onlookers are seated. Almost immediately, he is approached by a thirty-something professional male with unruly blond hair who was basically trying to give him a high-five and a big hug.

“Nail his ass,” said the unknown male, referring to defendant Blankenship, who was attempting to be way-too-familiar with Ruby. Those remarks and actions were then followed by other statements and mannerisms that essentially presumed the guilt of the former chief executive of Massey Energy.

Ruby, who is unfailingly polite and a perfect gentleman, kept his composure but took a step back and crossed his arms — as if to physically and symbolically distance himself from the approacher. Indeed, the whole specter raises the question of whether this is a trial about the facts or whether it is a political undertaking, which has long-been the contention of the Blankenship defense.

“I can promise you that our office has never once had a discussion about the political implications of this case — or any other case,” Ruby told me, about a week after this encounter. When I told him that I had observed this incident and that I had internalized the way in which he handled it, he was appreciative and understood that his own actions are being closely watched.

Ruby, in fact, is like the little brother you always wished for — a kid, who against the odds has succeeded beyond his family’s hopes: At age 12, his own father died in an industrial accident near Nitro, W.V. He would go on to attend Duke University and Washington & Lee’s law school, where he finished first in his class. Straight as an arrow, he was probably the kind of adolescent who played little league baseball, only to strike out each time at bat — not unlike my own kid — but who was still loved and admired by all his teammates.

“You know, I’m changing my description of you,” I said to him.

“To what,” he responded. “To Clark Kent,” who is Superman’s real life persona, I said. That’s just a more refined characterization of what I had given him earlier: a “scholarly nerd."

As we know, Blankenship is alleged to have committed workplace safety violations as well as having filed false information with the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission. For their part, the government has called several witnesses to say that the company placed profits ahead of safety, all of which led to the April 2010 mine explosion that killed 29 men at the Upper Big Branch site near Beckley, W.V.  

The defense, meanwhile, contends that Blankenship did not micromanage each mine site — that he was involved with running the entire $6 billion enterprise. It maintains that the government’s case is politically motivated, pointing out that the U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin supposedly has gubernatorial aspirations while his father Joe Bob Goodwin is a federal judge who has been a prominent member of the Democratic Party. (His first cousin was a U.S. senator for a short period until its current occupant, Joe Manchin, could get seated.)

"There's no secret that long before the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch mine he was a controversial man, conservative Republican,” who disliked the Obama administration, the environmental movement and what he felt was an oppressive regulatory regime, says William Taylor, the lead attorney for Blankenship, in his opening statement. Blankenship, meanwhile, gave a lot of money trying to get like-minded state legislators and U.S. lawmakers elected to office.

Judge Irene Berger cut him off before he could complete his argument, reminding him that this trial is about alleged law-breaking — not the validity of the regulations that Mr. Blankenship has opposed.

One of the things that the lead U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby and I discussed in our last impromptu conversation was my overall impressions of the trial — and the criminal court process, which admittedly is completely new territory for me. I don’t know why, but I thought there would be a lot of loud and emotional voices from the lawyers followed by the slamming of the gavel from Judge Berger.

Quite the opposite: It’s one of the most dignified proceedings I’ve witnessed, with the lawyers on both sides being professional and unruffled and with the judge injecting small amounts of humor into the case:

“It’s been a while since I’ve seen you all,” Judge Burger said, as she invited the eight different attorneys back up to the bench to resolve some legal difference — about 90 seconds after they had just been there to talk about something else. Each side has four lawyers, with another half dozen sitting right behind them.

On a completely different day at an entirely different break, Blankenship’s lawyer, William Taylor was milling around the entrance of the courtroom when we caught each other’s attention: “I read your stories,” he told me, which brought an immediate smile and a bit of a pitter-pat to my heart. Like the rest of his team, he is distinguished and polished — a patrician who speaks the King’s English.

At this point in the game — my career — I am indifferent as to whom may read a given a story. But I must admit that I was taken aback and heartened that he recognized me and my work. Mr. Taylor then entered the courtroom and graciously shook hands with the miners’ families. As I said, he is a class act.

Along those lines, his law partner and fellow defense lawyer Blair Brown and I have formed a bond. (You may recall, we met early in the trial in the men’s room.) We are now connected via Twitter, prompting me to check out his background: He and my brother were in the same class at Tulane University. Both of us are avid New Orleans Saints fans too. (I’ve given him a standing invitation to go for run, given that we are the same town for the next six weeks.)

The informalities aside, the trial is getting increasingly intense. The prosecution is calling key executives to the stand and is about to call its star witness, who warned of a potential disaster unless steps were taken to improve safety. It’s like watching a mystery unfold — more dramatic than anything in the theaters.

With the prosecution expected to wrap up its case this week, the defense is noting that the best is yet to come.

Ken Silverstein is Editor-in-Chief of Public Utilities Fortnightly. Contact him at

Join him in Scottsdale, Ariz. on November 16-18 to discuss this case along with Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray. The focus will be on disruptive technologies — the kinds of investments that the Obama administration is making in 21st Century energies and technologies.

Lead image (c) Can Stock Photo