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.
But the impact of those donations in the region where Blankenship's mine cost the lives of so many remains unclear. While his donations have garnered harsh criticism from political opponents, Blankenship himself remains a controversial figure in his home state who is reviled by some, but respected by others who appreciate the work he's brought to otherwise hardscrabble parts of the state. Robin Shamblin, whose sister Bobbie is a miner at Upper Big Branch, told the New York Times in April that "there is a lot of pride that Massey people feel about their work and working in the mines over all. They are happy to be working and many, not all, but many, feel lucky to be working for Massey and Blankenship."
The contributions to Maynard have, if nothing else, rekindled discussion of the friendship between the two men – a relationship that became newsworthy when Maynard was serving on the state supreme court, which was hearing Blankenship's appeal of a $50 million judgment against Massey.
Several mining companies had successfully sued claiming that Massey Energy had driven them out of business by defaulting on contracts and committing fraud. Two years later, as Massey was appealing the verdict, Blankenship spent about $3 million on campaign ads meant to knock Justice Warren McGraw off the West Virginia Supreme Court. McGraw lost the 2004 election by six points to challenger Brent Benjamin. While Blankenship contributed only a small sum to Benjamin's campaign, he was the principal funder of a political action committee called For the Sake of the Kids that produced the attack ads against McGraw.
In 2007, three years after Benjamin's election, the West Virginia Supreme Court finally ruled on the appeal of the $50 million verdict in the case known as Caperton v. Massey. Justice Benjamin refused to recuse himself from the case, and voted in Massey's favor, as did Spike Maynard, who was also serving on the court. The jury verdict against Massey was overturned.
Then pictures of Maynard vacationing on the French Riviera with Blankenship in 2006 surfaced. The two appeared in time-stamped photos taken on three successive days in Monaco while Caperton v. Massey was before the court. Maynard recused himself from the case, and the court reheard Caperton's appeal.
When an ABC News reporter attempted to question Blankenship about the Maynard photos, and his personal relationship with West Virginia's Supreme Court justices, he issued a warning before grabbing the reporter's camera and shoving him. "If you're going to start taking pictures of me," said Blankenship, "you're liable to get shot."
The state supreme court overturned the judgment again in April 2008, with Benjamin again voting in favor of Massey. Plaintiff Caperton appealed the state supreme court's ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, saying that Blankenship's role in Benjamin's election to the court created an appearance of bias, whether or not there was any real bias. Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that the money spent by Blankenship to defeat McGraw was "more than the total amount spent by all other Benjamin supporters, and three times the amount spent by Benjamin's own committee."
While the court has lately been loosening restrictions on campaign financing, its decision in Caperton v. Massey attempted to place limits on the role of money in judicial elections. In 2009, the West Virginia Supreme Court again took up Caperton v. Massey - and again decided in Massey's favor, this time by an even larger margin, 4 to 1. Brent Benjamin, as directed by the U.S Supreme Court, recused himself. Spike Maynard didn't have to recuse himself again, because he was off the court, having lost a 2008 primary campaign in which the Blankenship photos were much featured.
Earlier this year, Rahall went after Maynard for the Blankenship connection. "I think responsible individuals would want me to undertake my responsibilities as a member of Congress to discern what it is I'm voting on," he told the Charleston Daily Mail. "It's like a judge using integrity. You can't base it on drinking Kool-Aid on the French Riviera. You've got to base it on facts. You've got to hear all the facts before you render a decision."
Maynard responded to the comments, telling the newspaper " the public isn't interested in issues like that or whether Rahall had lunch with a guy like Yasser Arafat or went to Baghdad to try to meet with Saddam Hussein, or whether he constantly had lunch with Arab oil sheikhs. We could make the election about stuff about like, but the public's health care is at stake and coal miners jobs are at stake."
Maynard told the paper he could circulate photos of Rahall with President Obama or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but he didn't want to engage in a campaign of guilt by association.