West Virginia coal boss Don Blankenship has long dipped into his fortune to help finance the campaigns of political candidates and judges in his home state. The CEO of Massey Energy has used millions of dollars of his own money to push his pro-business agenda, and some have argued, help insulate his mining empire from government intrusion.
But in the aftermath of the explosion in Massey's Upper Big Branch mine, which killed 29 workers this April, Blankenship's financial backing carries with it a new set of political challenges for those willing to accept it. Records filed with federal elections officials recently show Blankenship made two large contributions to two congressional candidates in his state, including $4,800 to old friend Elliott "Spike" Maynard, a Republican running for congress in the West Virginia district where the mine explosion occurred.
Blankenship already has a controversial history with Maynard. As detailed in an ABC News investigation, while Maynard was a state supreme court justice, he vacationed on the Riviera with Blankenship -- and then voted to overturn a multimillion-dollar judgment against Massey.
One liberal blog called Blankenship's contribution to Maynard's congressional campaign "dirty coal money." A spokesman for the AFL CIO, Eddie Vale, called it "blood money."
"By accepting his money these candidates are enabling his reckless behavior to continue and sending a clear message to the working families of West Virginia -- they are perfectly willing to run their campaign over the backs of the dead," Vale told ABC News.
When Maynard's opponent, Rep. Nick Rahall, tried to use Blankenship's support to challenge his integrity earlier this year, Maynard told a local reporter he was "surprised that Rahall would go that low" and dismissed the attack as one that wouldn't register with West Virginians. His campaign spokesman did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Blankenship told ABC News it wasn't up to him to assess the impact of his contributions.
"The impact of my support for candidates in West Virginia who will improve our economy is best left to voters," Blankenship said in an e-mailed statement when asked about the impact of his contributions. "I've supported many candidates and issues throughout the years that would improve West Virginia's economy, because I believe our West Virginia residents deserve more jobs and lower taxes."
Blankenship's ability to help candidates financially is clear in the most recent federal reports. In addition to his $4,800 contribution to Maynard, the maximum allowed under federal rules, his relatives gave another $11,150, and Massey Energy employees gave another $21,000, according the campaign reports, which are displayed on the Federal Election Commission website. He has personally donated nearly $100,000 to federal candidates over the years, nearly all to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics web site. And because he has had a position on the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he has had the ability to help direct millions more to campaigns around the country.