Court rejects ex-coal CEO's bid to remain free during appeal

John Raby, Associated Press

A federal appeals court rejected a bid Thursday by former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship to remain free while the court considers an appeal of his conviction related to the deadliest U.S. mine explosion in four decades.

In a Wednesday, April 6, 2016 file photo, former Massey CEO Don Blankenship is escorted by Homeland Security officers from the Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse in Charleston, W.Va. A federal appeals court rejected a bid Thursday May 12, 2016, by Blankenship to remain free while the court considers an appeal of his conviction related to the deadliest U.S. mine explosion in four decades. A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals announced the ruling the same day Blankenship was scheduled to report to start serving his one-year sentence. (F. Brian Ferguson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP, File)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A federal appeals court rejected a bid Thursday by former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship to remain free while the court considers an appeal of his conviction related to the deadliest U.S. mine explosion in four decades.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals announced the ruling in a brief statement the same day Blankenship was scheduled to report to start serving his one-year sentence.

Blankenship's attorneys filed an emergency motion with the appeals court Tuesday, noting that he's was scheduled to head to an unspecified California prison.

A federal Bureau of Prisons website indicated Blankenship was not yet in the agency's custody.

Federal prosecutors declined comment. An attorney for Blankenship did not immediately comment on the ruling.

"Today we saw Don Blankenship go to federal prison where he belongs," Booth Goodwin, the former U.S. attorney who brought the case against Blankenship, said in a statement to The Associated Press. "It was a long road, but I am pleased to see him finally start to pay for his criminal conduct."

Blankenship was sentenced April 6 to a year in prison and ordered to pay a $250,000 fine for conspiring to willfully violate mine safety standards at West Virginia's Upper Big Branch coal mine, which exploded in 2010, killing 29 men.

The thought of Blankenship heading to prison was little satisfaction to Tommy Davis, who lost three family members in the 2010 tragedy and worked at the mine that day himself.

"It is what it is," Davis said. "It really don't mean a whole lot to me, because he didn't get what he needed. He wouldn't even have went to prison if he'd done what he needed to do as a CEO. I would still be fishing with my son and my brother and hanging out with my nephew and still worked with 29 good men."

But Gary Quarles, whose son Gary Wayne died at Upper Big Branch, felt differently.

"I think it's finally time he went to jail," Quarles said. "I'm very happy about it."

The appeals court previously set a May 31 deadline for initial briefs on Blankenship's conviction appeal.

Federal prosecutors in Charleston had said allowing the 66-year-old Blankenship to continue his $1 million bail would be contrary to federal law, which allows appeals to delay jail sentences only in "exceptional circumstances."

"None of defendant's contentions raise a substantial question likely to result in reversal," Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby wrote in an April 25 court filing.

According to federal law, defendants can remain free pending appeal if they can show their arguments on appeal raise a substantial question of law or fact likely to result in reversal, an order for a new trial, a sentence that does not include a prison term, or a substantially reduced jail sentence.

In the prosecution's filing, Ruby said the amount of time Blankenship serves in prison while his appeal is pending is not a relevant consideration.

"It makes no difference whether his sentence is a year or 40 years — the sentence cannot be stayed," Ruby wrote.

Blankenship's attorneys say he could serve much, or all, of his sentence before an appellate decision on the appeal is reached.

During the trial, prosecutors called Blankenship a bullish micromanager who meddled in the smallest details of Upper Big Branch. They said Massey's safety programs were just a facade — never backed by more money to hire additional miners or take more time on safety tasks.

Blankenship's attorneys believe he shouldn't have gotten more than a fine and probation, and have promised to appeal. They embraced Blankenship's image as a tough boss, but countered it by saying he demanded safety and showed commitment to his community, family and employees.

At Upper Big Branch, four investigations found worn and broken cutting equipment created a spark that ignited accumulations of coal dust and methane gas. Broken and clogged water sprayers then allowed what should have been a minor flare-up to become an inferno.

Blankenship disputed those reports and said he believed natural gas in the mine, and not methane gas and excess coal dust, was at the root of the explosion.

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