Bruce Stanley on Corporate Crime in West Virginia

For fourteen years, Bruce Stanley was a partner at one of the largest law firms in the world — Reed Smith in Pittsburgh.

blankenshipimageAnd while at Reed Smith, he represented individuals suing coal and chemical companies and their executives.

Most notably, Stanley represented Hugh Caperton in litigation against Don Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy. Stanley, Caperton and Blankenship are central figures in a book detailing that 14 year battle — The Price of Justice by Laurence Leamer.

Last month, Stanley left Reed Smith and opened his own firm. He’s currently still handling a number of West Virgnia cases, including a wrongful death case against DuPont involving a cancer cluster in Spelter, West Virginia.

What was Stanley thinking when he heard that Blankenship was indicted in West Virginia?

“I was pleased in the sense that the U.S. Attorney had finally dedicated the energy and the resources to do the kind of investigation that was necessary to bring a halt to that type of activity in the coal fields,” Stanley told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week.

“Hopefully that indictment will serve as an example. I was also relieved, not only for the Upper Big Branch families, but also for the Aracoma families. I represented some of the members of the Upper Big Branch families. But I also represented the widows in the Aracoma mine fire. And one of the things we were disappointed with in the outcome of that case was the failure to persuade the U.S. Attorney’s office that its criminal investigation should not have stopped at the Aracoma subsidiary, but should have traveled on upstream. And we believed that there was enough evidence. Don Blankenship was literally sending memos into the Aracoma mine the day of the fire telling the Aracoma president — stay on coal. That was the day of the fire — January 19, 2006.”

“That was consistent with his level of interaction at the mine level, particularly at all of the big longwall operations like Upper Big Branch. There was nothing new or significant at Upper Big Branch that hadn’t been going on at Aracoma and other operations.”

It was the same district — the Southern District of West Virginia — but a different U.S. Attorney?

“Yes. At the time, Chuck Miller was the acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District. I saw the New York Times article last week. It was interesting to see anonymous attribution to an investigator in the southern district that the performance at Aracoma was one of the things that spurred action at Upper Big Branch.”

You have to hand it to the U.S. Attorney — Booth Goodwin.

“Yes. And to the Assistant U.S. Attorney. The U.S. Attorney has to have the nerve to say — yes, let’s do it. Yes, let’s pull the trigger. But it takes a dedicated staff and an Assistant U.S. Attorney or two to go down there and say — I will build for you a case that you can greenlight.”

Twenty-five years or so ago, there was a District Attorney in Los Angeles. His name was Ira Reiner. And every time there was a death on the job, he would open a criminal investigation and sometimes bring manslaughter charges against the companies and executives.

Last week, we interviewed a professor at Maryland Law School — Rena Steinzor — who makes the argument that we must start again investigating these cases for manslaughter charges.

“I agree with the premise,” Stanley says. “When we filed the Aracoma complaint against Don Blankenship personally, people were shocked that we had named him personally. I said — what are you talking about? If he did the deed, he’s going to have to answer for the conduct. I called Blankenship’s defense The Reverse Nuremberg Defense — in effect — I can’t be held liable for these things. I was only giving the orders. Of course, you were giving the orders. That’s why you should be held responsible. Nobody is going to stand up to the likes of Don Blankenship when it means losing your home. And he knew that. All corporate bullies know that.”

“So, yes, I agree with the premise. But it takes political will power. When you are in a state like West Virginia where coal has been such a power player at all societal levels, it is a foreign concept to an elected prosecuting attorney who is part of a machine ticket that was vouched for by the coal interests. And he’d say — you are kidding right? I’m supposed to empanel a grand jury and ask them to conduct a serious investigation into the likes of Don Blankenship? That’s the great divide.”

“The beauty of the federal system is — those folks don’t have to worry, at least in theory, about that kind of political weight. Until the local district attorneys can be invested with the kind of independent strength to say — my office is more important than how I achieved it — in fiefdoms like the state of West Virginia, I don’t hold out a whole lot of hope. But I agree with the concept wholeheartedly. It’s about political willpower.”

“The prosecuting attorney in Mingo County was just recently indicted by the U.S. Attorney. Those guys are as likely to be the subject of a criminal investigation as conduct one.”

Even though we just went through an election cycle in West Virginia where Obama’s war on coal was front and center, it seems like the state, and even the coal industry, has turned on Don Blankenship.

“Don Blankenship is radioactive — even among his former colleagues in the coal industry,” Stanley says. “They have enough public relations savvy to know that this guy is radioactive. The coal industry for years has been quite content to do its business behind closed doors, get its deals done that way, get its agendas addressed, get its folks appointed and all the rest. Don never played that game. He was Popeye in that sense — I am what I am and I do what I do. He did it to such a degree, he was emboldened to such a degree, he obviously stepped over a number of lines.”

In some ways, he’s more honest and tells the truth in ways the coal industry won’t.

“It’s a ‘nail me up on a cross of gold’ kind of thing. Don is not going to apologize for being Don. He calls them as he sees them. His strike zone is probably different from most of the people in the civilized world. And he calls them as he sees them in that strike zone.”

But it’s the same strike zone as the coal industry strike zone. He just calls them that way publicly.

“That’s fair enough,” Stanley says. “Don is a Republican. He asks — why do we work with these people when it’s against our vested interest? He has been proven right with these election results. Those Democrats in the recent election were trying to out Republican the Republicans. I asked one guy — what if they held an election in West Virginia and no Democrats voted? And his answer was — what if they held an election in West Virginia and no Democrats ran?”

“The amazing thing about Blankenship is his candor.”

What they say about most corporate CEOs is that they operate so that there is no trail left behind. But Blankenship is the exact opposite. He says — he wants to know everything that is going on.

“He made sure that that message was heard — that it was heard from him. He used to keep a DADS Root Beer mug in the office. Middle managers would show up and find that mug on the first day on his job. And they would say to the old hands — what is this about? And the old hands would say — don’t you get it? DADS — Do as Don Says. It’s that simple.”

Where’s the hope for West Virginia?

“I don’t know,” Stanley says. “I grew up in West Virginia and I can’t tell you now whether the people of West Virginia are worse off or better off than when I was there. I get the distinct sense that they are worse off. You have that many more mountains that are missing, that many more people addicted to drugs, that many more people without hope, that many more streams polluted, that many more regulations pulled off the top and workers without representation. So, yes, there is a lot of human misery left to be suffered in West Virginia. One hopes that the shenanigans that have been exposed at the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals doesn’t ultimately backfire in such a way as to make those people victims yet again.”

[For the complete q/a transcript of the Interview with Bruce Stanley, see page 28 Corporate Crime Reporter 48(12), December 15, 2014, print edition only]

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