Blankenship Case Exhibits the Need to Change the System

UPDATE 2/17/16: Regular as clockwork, another CEO, Gary Southern, has swung himself a 30 day jail sentence despite poisoning the water supply for Charleston West Virginia. There continues to be one system for the rich in this country and one for everybody else. That has got to change.

Don Blankenship will escape his criminal trial without receiving the long prison sentence he deserves. A possible one year in jail, and a fine, are punishments that do not fit his crimes. But rather than rail against the injustice, we need to understand it, and address it, by fixing the laws and the system that made it happen.

Don’t imagine the lawyers, or the judge, or the jury rigged it. All of those folks performed their roles properly and honestly in this case. Everyone involved did their lawful duty in the epic Charleston trial of the former coal baron. But the resulting sentence points to a larger and more important truth below the surface.

For a powerful few in this country, nothing is left to chance. Blankenship didn’t have to try to influence the judge or jury unduly, because people like him set the system up well in advance, and make sure that the law itself is looking after them. When the chips fall their way, there is no surprise because everything has been arranged ahead of time.

CEOs like Blankenship have rigged our system in a deep and systematic way. The reason the sentence will be such a letdown was perfectly expressed by Vann Newkirk’s observation that our “system cannot avenge those it was not designed to protect.” Exactly so.

Our justice system has been built up over hundreds of years — all of them dominated, to one extent or another, by the power of organized money. A person can receive a long prison term for possessing marijuana, but not for conspiring to violate mine safety regulations. The reason is that those who would conspire to violate mine safety regulations organize their money and demand special protections from the legal system — and they get them.

West Virginians overwhelmingly believe that Don Blankenship bears responsibility for the deaths at Upper Big Branch. A clearer case of “industrial homicide” has rarely been seen. Yet again, and again, Blankenship’s team expressed frank incredulity and indignity at the idea that he would even be tried, let alone convicted, of anything.

Booth Goodwin’s historic prosecution of Blankenship was a tour de force, all the more so given the limited tools we give our prosecutors to work with against CEOs. But the light sentence — destined to be heavier in money than jail time — clearly shows us where ordinary miners stand in our legal system compared to the big bosses. Blankenship faced thirty times as many years behind bars for crimes against banking than he did for crimes against human beings.

Mine safety regulations are a matter of life and death. But conspiracy to violate them carries a misdemeanor-grade sentence. The system we have cannot avenge those it was not designed to protect. So we must change the system, and bring it into balance with what truly matters — bringing workers home at the end of the day to be reunited with their families — instead of tilting it towards “profit at any cost.”

All aspects of the system have this problem. Pensions and health benefits for workers are no safer than the workers themselves. In bankruptcy court, there is always money, and more money, to pay executives their salaries, bankers their fees, and bonuses on top of that. But there is never money for the workers’ pensions. Modest, monthly checks earned over thirty-plus-years of service at hard labor are suddenly “bloated” or “excessive,” while multi-million-dollar bonanzas for single executives are “necessary expenditures” for “key employees.”

More often than not, the most-highly compensated personnel have the most responsibility for the financial disasters, just as they have the most responsibility for the the human catastrophes. But they have financed a system that makes sure the price for their mistakes is paid by others. And they are getting their way.

Year after year, just as families are broken and bereft of their loved ones who do not survive Blankenship’s vision of how to “run coal,” so are those who survive bereft of the money once thought to have been earned underground. Organized money operates a system much like the house in a casino; in the end, they get it all.

Financial criminals brought this nation to its knees in 2007, and few if any of them have been prosecuted and none received a significant jail sentence despite costing the nation hundreds of billions of dollars and millions of jobs. Meanwhile, thousands of Americans are jailed for failing to have money enough to pay fines for petty violations of the law and regulations. Privatization of our prisons and courts is another means for organized money to extract profit from ordinary working people, and it’s a growth industry in 2016.

We need to redesign our system. We need to give prosecutors the tools they need to reach the top — where the decisions really get made. Mine safety is as good a place as any to start. At the federal level, the Byrd Act remains ready to go — every member of West Virginia’s Congressional delegation should support it as a top priority. If West Virginia’s leaders won’t stand up for miners and their families, who will? At the state level, conspiracies like Blankenship’s to violate mine safety rules should be deemed a felony, and carry a stiff sentence.

Some say that West Virginia prosecutors wouldn’t have the moxie to take on CEOs like Blankenship. But our U.S. Attorney has set an example for others to follow by boldly placing the responsibility where it belongs: on the wealthy men making the decisions that sent honest, hardworking, decent people into needless peril and death. Others must follow his work. The least leaders can do is deliver to our prosecuting attorneys the legal tools they need to make their convictions count at sentencing time.

Working people don’t have the advantage of unlimited bank accounts. They have to educate, organize, and vote to beat the Blankenships at their own game. When organized people demand it, we will have a system that protects them from organized money. Let’s get started.