CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Ex-Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship was the kingpin of a massive conspiracy and had a “band of yes men” at the company, a federal prosecutor told jurors Tuesday.
“His method of operation was to violate nearly every law on mine safety in the book,” U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said in closing arguments in Blankenship’s criminal trial.
Blankenship is accused of putting profits ahead of safety in the years before an explosion killed 29 men at the Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia in 2010.
He could face up to 30 years in prison on charges of conspiring to break mine safety laws at Upper Big Branch and lying to financial regulators and investors about company safety.
The trial’s finish comes after the prosecution slogged through weeks of witness testimony and defence questioning.
Blankenship’s attorneys rested their case Monday without calling a single witness on his behalf.
Opting not to call any witnesses is a rare, aggressive and risky defence strategy, experts say.
“It’s a way of saying, ‘The prosecution’s case is so weak we don’t need to respond, and we can win without calling a single witness,'” said Brandon Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor who wrote a book about corporate prosecutions.
It’s unusual for the defence not to call witnesses who can “humanize the defendant,” Garrett said.
The trial, which began Oct. 1, featured testimony from Massey management and miners, expert witnesses, federal regulators, and more.
Prosecutors painted Blankenship as a micromanager who received constant reports about Upper Big Branch, meddled in the smallest decisions at the mine and cared more about money than safety. His attorneys, meanwhile, used testimony from multiple prosecution witnesses to support his defence.
Throughout the case, prosecutors used phone calls Blankenship secretly recorded in his Massey office to let the former coal baron make their case in his own voice.
In key calls, Blankenship said that a scathing internal safety memo should be kept highly confidential, and that it would be a terrible document to show up in legal discovery if there was a mine fatality.
Former Massey subsidiary president Christopher Blanchard testified under an immunity agreement with the government, but helped the defence during almost five days of cross-examination.
He told Blankenship’s attorneys that he himself did not break any laws and denied being involved in a conspiracy with Blankenship to violate safety regulations. The defence showed Blanchard more than 180 documents to get him to agree that Blankenship and Massey pushed for safety.
Testifying to prosecutors, Blanchard said he believed Blankenship thought it was less expensive to pay fines than pay for measures to prevent safety violations. He also said most Upper Big Branch violations could have been prevented by hiring more miners or spending more time on safety tasks.
And former Massey safety expert William Ross, who gave the tough review of the company’s safety shortcomings, provided a rare emotional testimony.
He wept while testifying about how thrilled he was that he thought Massey was going to change. He also became emotional while talking about a 2009 meeting with Blankenship, in which he told the executive that Massey couldn’t “afford to have a disaster.”