Don Blankenship

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Don Blankenship
Picture of Don Blankenship
Born Donald Leon Blankenship
(1950-03-14) March 14, 1950 (age 68)
Stopover, Kentucky
Alma mater Marshall University
Occupation Coal magnate
Years active 1972–2010
Known for Former CEO of Massey Energy during the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster; Republican Primary Candidate for U.S. Senate
Criminal charge conspiracy to violate mine safety and health standards
Criminal penalty 1 year in federal prison; $250,000 fine
Children 2

Donald Leon "Don" Blankenship (born March 14, 1950) is a candidate for the United States Senate from West Virginia and retired American business executive. He was Chairman and CEO of the Massey Energy Company — the sixth largest coal company (by 2008 production) in the United States[1] — from 2000 until his retirement in 2010.[2] A federal grand jury indicted Blankenship on November 13, 2014, for conspiracy to violate mandatory federal mine safety and health standards, conspiracy to impede federal mine safety officials, making false statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as securities fraud.

As a result of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, in which 29 miners were killed in Raleigh County, West Virginia on April 5, 2010, he faced up to 30 years in prison on several charges including felony conspiracy.[3] On March 5, 2015, the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a gag order that had been keeping anyone involved in the case (including relatives of victims), from talking about the accident.[4]

On December 3, 2015, Blankenship was found guilty of one misdemeanor charge of conspiring to wilfully violate mine safety and health standards. He was acquitted of felony charges for lying about safety procedures in Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine that caused an explosion in 2010 before his retirement.[5] On December 28, 2015, U.S. Magistrate Judge Clarke VanDevort lowered his bond from $5 million to $1 million, and he was permitted to return to his home in Las Vegas, and travel freely in the U.S.

On April 6, 2016, he was sentenced to 1 year in jail and fined $250,000. On May 12, 2016, his appeal rejected in federal court, he reported to FCI Taft, in California north of Los Angeles, to begin serving his sentence.[6] On January 19, 2017, his appeal of his conviction was rejected by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.[7] He was released from prison on May 10, 2017.[8]

Blankenship is a financial backer of the Republican party and participant in local and state politics in his home state of West Virginia.[9] He has frequently spoken out about politics, the environment, unions, and coal production.

On November 28, 2017, he filed election papers to run for United States Senate, representing West Virginia.[10]

Early life and education[edit]

Blankenship was born in Stopover, Kentucky and raised in Delorme, West Virginia. His father served in the Korean War and his mother, Nancy McCoy, was a member of the McCoy family; they divorced soon after Don was born, and Don's mother ran a convenience store and gas station with her divorce settlement money for 40 years.[11] Three years after graduating from Matewan High School, West Virginia,[12] he earned a bachelor's degree in accounting from Marshall University in 1972.[13][14] He was the recipient of Marshall University's "Most Distinguished Alumni" award and inducted into the Lewis College of Business Hall of Fame in 1999.[15]

Blankenship is certified as a public accountant.[16] In 2002, he was inducted into the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants' Business and Industry Hall of Fame[17] and, in 2002, was recognized by the West Virginia Society of Certified Public Accountants as an Outstanding Member in Business and Industry.[15] Blankenship was also inducted into the Tug Valley Mining Institute Hall of Fame.[16]


Blankenship joined a Massey subsidiary, Rawl Sales & Processing Co., in 1982. Since then he has served the company in a number of capacities.[18][19] He was promoted to president of Massey Coal Services, Inc. (1989–1991), then president and chief operating officer from 1990 to 1991.[20]

In 1992, Blankenship was named president, chairman of the board of A.T. Massey.[20] He is the first non-Massey family member to be in charge of the company. When A.T. Massey was spun off from Fluor Corporation as Massey Energy in 2000,[21] Blankenship became the newly independent company's chairman and CEO.

On December 3, 2010, Blankenship announced that he was retiring as CEO at the end of the year and would be succeeded by Massey President Baxter F. Phillips Jr.[22]

Board memberships[edit]

In 1996, Blankenship was elected to the board of directors of engineering and construction company Fluor Corporation.[23] He also serves as a director of the Center for Energy and Economic Development, a director of the National Mining Association, Mission West Virginia Inc, and was on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce board of directors.[18][24][25]

Coal mining[edit]

McCoy Coal Group[edit]

In 2011, Blankenship incorporated a coal company in Kentucky named McCoy Coal Group (not to be confused with the James River Coal Company subsidiary McCoy-Elkhorn Coal Corp). McCoy has yet to seek mining permits.[26]

Blankenship was paid $17.8 million in 2009, the highest in the coal industry. It was a $6.8 million raise over 2008, and almost double his compensation package in 2007. Blankenship also received a deferred compensation package valued at $27.2 million in 2009.[27]

Upper Big Branch explosion[edit]

On April 5, 2010, an explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 miners. It was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster since 1970, when an explosion killed 38 in Hyden, Kentucky. In 2006, a fatal accident at Aracoma Alma (also owned by Massey Coal Co.) was one of the explosions prompting Congress to upgrade federal mine safety laws for the first time since 1977.[28] As Blankenship came under increased scrutiny, a Business Week article said that he had a reputation for resistance to spending money, willingness to litigate, and personally going into mines to persuade workers to abandon union organizing efforts.[29] On April 12, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, the sole trustee of the New York State Common Retirement Fund which holds 303,550 shares of Massey stock worth about $14.1 million, called for Blankenship to resign immediately. "Massey's cavalier attitude toward risk and callous disregard for the safety of its employees has exacted a horrible cost on dozens of hard-working miners and their loved ones," DiNapoli said in a public statement reported by Reuters and others. "This tragedy was a failure both of risk management and effective board oversight. Blankenship must step down and make room for more responsible leadership at Massey."[30] On April 22, Massey Energy's lead independent director Bobby R. Inman announced that "Blankenship has the full support and confidence of the Massey Energy Board of Directors."[31] On April 25, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and state officials paid tribute to the 29 coal miners at a memorial service in Beckley, West Virginia.[32]

The former superintendent of a U.S. mine at the time of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion pleaded guilty in March 2011 to a federal fraud charge. "Prosecutors said Massey manipulated the ventilation system during inspections of the Upper Big Branch mine to fool safety officials and disabled a methane monitor on a cutting machine a few months before the explosion on April 5, 2010.... ...Prosecutors have refused to say whether they are targeting former Massey CEO Don Blankenship, whose company was cited for violations so frequently that union critics accused him of regarding fines as simply the cost of doing business....[33]

In March 2013, at a plea hearing in a federal court, Blankenship was directly implicated in conspiring to skirt safety regulations. A former Massey Energy official accused Blankenship of conspiring and plotting to hide safety violations from federal safety inspectors. The implication was that Blankenship would order his officials to warn mine operators when the federal inspectors were coming for "surprise" visits, and to quickly cover up any safety violations.[34]

Blankenship went on to serve a one-year prison sentence. He called himself a "political prisoner", feuded with United States Senator Joe Manchin and the Mine Safety and Health Administration over the explosion,[35] considered running against Manchin for the Senate,[36] and called for a new investigation into the explosion.[37] On May 25, 2017, he formally appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. His petition argued that the U.S. District Court in Charleston and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, "both erred in rulings, and they claim Blankenship was a victim of politics."[38]

In August 2017, Blankenship funded a television ad featuring the sister of one of the miners killed in the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion. The sister, Gwen Thomas, asks in the ad "if the United States Mine Safety and Health Administration insisted that changes be made which reduced Upper Big Branch’s airflow before the explosion." She asks the government to publicly release the gas analyses taken after the explosion, and she asks for help from President Donald Trump and U.S. Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) in getting answers.[39]


A former employee of Blankenship, Deborah May, similarly filed a lawsuit which claimed that stress from personal abuse forced her to quit her job in November 2005. The lawsuit claimed that such comparatively minor mistakes as a wrong breakfast order from McDonald's, misplaced ice cream in the freezer, and an improperly hung jacket in the closet caused difficulties with Blankenship.[40] In June 2008, West Virginia's top court ruled that May was entitled to unemployment benefits because "the unrefuted evidence" showed that Blankenship "physically grabbed" the maid, threw food after she brought back the wrong fast-food order, and tore a tie rack and coat hanger out of a closet after she forgot to leave the hanger out for his coat. "This shocking conduct" showed May was in effect fired because she felt compelled to quit, the justices said. "[41] When groundwater pollution from coal slurry injection by Massey Energy began contaminating wells around Blankenship's home, Massey paid to build a water line to his home from a neighboring town. Blankenship did not offer to provide uncontaminated water to any of his neighbors, nor did he inform them of the problem.[42] Blankenship was featured in a 2005 West Virginia Public Broadcasting documentary, The Kingmaker.[citation needed]

Warren McGraw[edit]

In 2004, Blankenship contributed $3 million to the "And For The Sake of the Kids" PAC, campaigning against the re-election of West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw. Brent Benjamin would go on to defeat McGraw in the general election. Speaking about the election, Blankenship said, "I helped defeat a judge who had released a pedophile to work in a local school, who had driven doctors out of state, and who had cost workers their jobs for thirty plus years. I think this effort helped unchain West Virginia's economy and benefited working families." [43] However, USA Today called Blankenship's ads "venomous." [44] According to a USA Today editorial dated March 3, 2009, Blankenship "has vividly illustrated how big money corrupts judicial elections. It puts justice up for sale to the highest bidder."[44]

Washington political journalist Michael Tomasky, himself a native West Virginian, claimed that Blankenship was "famous in West Virginia as the man who successfully bought himself a State Supreme Court Justice in 2004 and then tried to buy himself the state legislature, failing spectacularly at the latter effort."[45]

Michael Shnayerson, in his 2008 book Coal River, reports that no such foundation was ever set up and that Blankenship's tactics didn't help other Republicans in the state. In 2006, the $3 million that he had provided to forty Republican challengers to Democratic state legislators brought just a single victory.[46] Although Blankenship was the primary donor to "And For the Sake of Kids," other groups, including Doctors for Justice, contributed over $1 million to ASK. Another group, Citizens for Quality Health Care, which was funded in part by the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, spent over $350,000 to defeat McGraw.[47] Meanwhile, several groups spent millions opposing Benjamin and supporting McGraw, including West Virginia Consumers for Justice and Hugh Caperton, CEO of Harmon Development Corporation.[48]

Blankenship is featured in Laurence Leamer's 2013 book, The Price of Justice: A True Story of Greed and Corruption[49] and in Peter Galuszka's 2012 book, Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.[50]

Justice Spike Maynard[edit]

On January 15, 2008, photographs of Blankenship vacationing on the French Riviera with West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Spike Maynard, while Massey had a case pending before that court, appeared in the New York Times.[51] On April 3, 2008, ABC News reported that Blankenship attacked an ABC News photographer at a Massey facility near Belfry, Kentucky as the photographer attempted to question Blankenship about the photos. "If you're going to start taking pictures of me, you're liable to get shot!" Blankenship stated in the video.[52] Justice Maynard later lost his bid for re-election to the West Virginia Supreme Court in the West Virginia primary election.[53] On February 14, 2009, Blankenship told the New York Times, "I've been around West Virginia long enough to know that politicians don't stay bought, particularly ones that are going to be in office for 12 years... So I would never go out and spend money to try to gain favor with a politician. Eliminating a bad politician makes sense. Electing somebody hoping he's going to be in your favor doesn't make any sense at all."[54]


Blankenship is a Republican and an active participant in West Virginia politics.[55] During a speech at the Tug Valley Mining Institute on November 20, 2008, Blankenship called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Harry Reid and former Vice President Al Gore "crazies" and "greeniacs."[56]

In a 1980s documentary, he stated "It's like a jungle, where a jungle is survival of the fittest. Unions, communities, people — everybody's gonna have to learn to accept that in the United States you have a capitalist society, and that capitalism, from a business standpoint, is survival of the most productive."[57]

2018 Senate Bid[edit]

Blankenship has entered the Republican Party primary in the United States Senate election in West Virginia, 2018. His entry has been controversial due to his role in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, though he remains popular due to his support for the coal industry which is vital to the state.[58]

Climate Change[edit]

In his speech at the Tug Valley Mining Institute, he also stated, "I don't believe climate change is real."[59] He associated President Jimmy Carter's support for energy conservation in the 1970s with communism: "Buy a smaller car? Conserve? I have spent quite a bit of time in Russia and China, and that's the first stage." Blankenship's views on global warming were reiterated in interviews conducted by The Hill and Forbes.[60][61]

In a letter to the editor of The Charleston Gazette dated October 30, 2009, Blankenship denied that climate change, or "global warming," existed, and stated: "Why should we trust a report by the United Nations? The United Nations includes countries like Venezuela, North Korea and Iran." [62]

Mine Safety[edit]

At a 2009 Labor Day rally in West Virginia,[63] Blankenship expressed that the federal and state mining regulators were ineffective at improving mine safety, and that the mining companies themselves were better suited to this task and should have less oversight.[64]

In his 2018 Senate Campaign, Blankenship, despite having been convicted of willfully violating mine safety and health standards in his operations at Massey Energy, blamed the federal regulators of the MSHA for the Upper Big Branch Disaster for directing airflow targets in the mine.[65]

Personal life[edit]

He is divorced and lives in Rawl, West Virginia. Blankenship has two children.[66] His son, John Blankenship, is a dirt track car racer, although his father has shut down his team and put its assets up for sale.[67]

Blankenship is featured unflatteringly in Michael Shnayerson's 2008 book Coal River and in Laurence Leamer's 2013 book, The Price of Justice: A True Story of Greed and Corruption.[49]


Blankenship founded Massey Energy Spousal Groups, which led all charitable work for the company and its employees. The Massey website described the company as providing "financial support to the Groups as they assist children, the elderly, fire departments and many other deserving individuals and programs. Projects included town and stream cleanups, school book fairs, local park improvement, senior citizen appreciation dinners and the annual Christmas Extravaganzas." [68]

In October 2012, Marshall University announced that Blankenship committed $300,000 in scholarships for students attending the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine. The pledge was made in the name of Blankenship's mother, Nancy Marie McCoy, and $100,000 of the pledge was received in early September 2012.[15]


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