- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 7, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Prosecutors painted former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship as a profit-hungry executive who prioritized making money over keeping his mines safe Wednesday, while Blankenship’s attorney said the executive did not think breaking regulations was a smarter business plan than fixing health hazards, despite his reputation as a tough boss and divisive public figure.

The two sides wove those themes into in their opening statements Wednesday in Blankenship’s federal trial, which is connected to a deadly Massey mine explosion five years ago.

After four days of jury selection finished Wednesday morning, the government said coal production took priority over safety under Blankenship’s tight management of Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia.

But Blankenship’s attorney said the CEO pushed for safety at his mines and wasn’t personally running Upper Big Branch.

Blankenship, 65, is charged with conspiring to break mine safety laws and lying to financial regulators about safety practices at Upper Big Branch, where a 2010 explosion killed 29 miners.

The charges against Blankenship tie him to hundreds of safety violations at the mine, where a system was used to alert underground miners when inspectors showed up at the gate, sometimes giving an hour and a half or more notice to workers below the surface.

Prosecutors say Upper Big Branch workers used code words over the radio to cover their tracks. Committing violations wasn’t just condoned; it was expected, they said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Ruby said a variety of witnesses, memos and phone recordings will show the executive was intricately involved at his mines. At Upper Big Branch, Ruby said Blankenship had to approve expenses as low as about $700, received some production reports every 30 minutes and violation reports every workday.

A quarter or more of Blankenship’s wealth was tied up in Massey stock. After the deadly explosion, Blankenship’s net worth dropped $3 million from April 5 to April 7, 2010, Ruby said.

“The motive for all of this is simple: money,” Ruby said.

William Taylor, Blankenship’s attorney, acknowledged that the former coal baron “wouldn’t win any popularity contests in the state of West Virginia.”

But he told jurors to ask themselves whether Blankenship “is on trial for what he did, or who he is.”

Before the government successfully objected, Taylor mentioned that Blankenship is a conservative Republican, dislikes the administration of President Barack Obama and disagrees with federal mine safety regulators.

He said citations are inevitable in coal mining, and added that ordering violations wouldn’t be cost effective. He said Massey focused on several safety initiatives under Blankenship, and added that Blankenship was not controlling Upper Big Branch at the level prosecutors say he was.

Additionally, Taylor said mine safety violations spiked nationwide at the same they grew at Upper Big Branch. And inspectors placed heightened attention on the mine because Massey miners and federal mine regulators were at odds.

Federal regulators stepped up enforcement of mine safety laws after the explosion at Upper Big Branch, which was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration began special impact inspections in 2010 at mines that have a poor compliance history or specific compliance concerns.

Generally, prosecuting high-level corporate executives is difficult because they can usually demonstrate detachment from operations on the ground. Blankenship has never shied from a fight. He has battled unions, spent millions to support Republicans in state races and fought regulators over safety and environmental rules.

He rose from a modest, single-mother upbringing in Appalachia to head Massey, where he personally made $19.7 million in 2008. He retired from Massey in December 2010.

Blankenship will also have to contend with his own voice on tape. He secretly installed a phone recording device in his Massey office.

According to Ruby, in a 2009 call Blankenship said, “Sometimes, I think that if it weren’t for the (U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration), we’d blow ourselves up.”

In another call, he said, black lung was not an issue worth the effort the industry was putting into it.

His former safety chief, William Ross, is also slated to testify for the government. Ross laid out Massey’s safety problems in a 2009 confidential memo that the government is now focusing on.

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