Don Blankenship always knew exactly what he wanted during the years he ran Massey Energy, once the sixth-largest coal company in the United States. He had specific and emphatic ideas about how to operate mines, how to treat employees and how to deal with regulators. When he issued instructions, he wanted them followed to the letter, and this wasn’t just true about his business.
It was also true about his breakfast.
His former maid, Deborah May, discovered this when she was dispatched one morning to McDonald’s to pick up an egg-and-cheese biscuit for her boss. What she returned with had bacon in it, and that was a problem. Mr. Blankenship flung the bacon, Ms. May recalled in a deposition, part of a lawsuit over unemployment benefits.
“He grabbed my wrist,” she said, and gave her a quick lecture: “Anytime I tell you to do anything, I want you to do exactly what I tell you to do and nothing more and nothing less.”
That was a well-known directive at Massey Energy. Middle managers would occasionally find cans of Dad’s Root Beer on their desks — a mnemonic for “Do as Don Says.”
Mr. Blankenship’s quasi-dictatorial management style as chief executive produced spectacular results for Massey, transforming it from a relatively modest business dominated by a single family into a corporation that operated more than 150 mines and brought in more than $2.6 billion in revenue. And Massey’s success lifted Mr. Blankenship out of an impoverished speck of Appalachia to a perch as one of West Virginia’s most feared and powerful figures. When he encountered politicians and judges who stood against his free-market, anti-regulatory views, he spent millions of dollars to end their careers or thwart their initiatives.
But on April 5, 2010, Mr. Blankenship’s singular role in West Virginia changed. That day, an explosion at the Massey-run Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, W.Va., killed 29 men; it was the deadliest disaster in the industry in 40 years. A government task force would ultimately determine that corners had been cut on important safety measures and that managers had hoodwinked regulators by tipping off miners about imminent inspections.
Federal prosecutors came to the conclusion that Donald L. Blankenship, 65, was behind what they described as misconduct, and last November a grand jury indicted him on four criminal counts, including conspiracy to violate mine safety standards and conspiracy to impede federal mine safety officials. He could face up to 31 years in prison. The trial, originally scheduled to start in January, has been pushed to Oct. 1. Mr. Blankenship has pleaded not guilty.
The indictment was hailed in The Charleston Gazette as a breakthrough, and denounced by Mr. Blankenship’s allies as politically motivated and grossly unfair. On one point, there was agreement: Federal authorities had taken a step without precedent in West Virginia.
“The fact that he was indicted is absolutely amazing,” said Ronald Eller, author of “Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945.” “For well over a century, men like Don Blankenship had control over jobs in this region and, as a result, had control over almost every other aspect of life. They used their wealth and their resources to assure that they were not challenged.”
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