Coal Boss Don Blankenship Cast as Cavalier About Worker Safety in Lawsuits

As more details continue to surface about the checkered safety record of the Massey Energy coal mine where 25 workers perished Monday, the lavish lifestyle and allegedly cavalier attitude of the company's controversial chief executive, as described in lawsuits and corporate documents, are now coming under intensifying scrutiny.

One miner who worked in Massey mines most of his 25-year career said working for CEO Don Blankenship was "like living under a hammer. It's all about the bottom line, we all know that." The miner, who would only agree to speak with an ABC News reporter if his name was not used, said Blankenship believes in "stretching the men to the limit … they want every ounce out of the men that they can get."

The public record describing Blankenship's bottom-line approach is long, much of it laid out in a series of investor lawsuits filed against Blankenship and his company, and in SEC documents submitted by a Wall Street investment house that made a failed bid to take control of Massey Energy four years ago. In these records, Blankenship was repeatedly criticized for both his approach to safety, and for what one investor called his "extravagant" package of pay and perks.


In just one year – 2005 -- Blankenship was paid $33.7 million in compensation, according to a 2008 lawsuit. He flies to resorts on a company-owned Challenger 601 luxury jet. And he lives in a house owned by Massey Energy that by contract becomes his property if he leaves.

Blankenship has always publicly disputed the notion that safety comes second for him or his company. At the same time, in public remarks, he has challenged his critics to have a realistic outlook about one of the nation's most dangerous professions.

The safety complaints were also the subject of increasing unease from investors, who worried Blankenship's management style was putting the future of Massey Energy at risk. In June 2007, two board members resigned from Massey's board of directors. Daniel S. Loeb and Todd Q. Swanson submitted a resignation letter saying they were stepping down in part because of Blankenship's "poor risk management" and the company's "confrontational handling" of regulatory matters.

In December 2008 a group of shareholders sued Massey Energy's board members for "blatantly disregarding their fiduciary obligations," in part because of safety violations that allowed employees to die in "preventable accidents." The suit was dismissed because a similar case, filed in West Virginia state court, had been settled, according to Barry Hill, a Wheeling attorney who represented plaintiffs in the case.

Many of these battles became grist for a book published in 2008 by freelance writer Michael Shnayerson called "Coal River." In an interview with ABC News Tuesday, Shnayerson said there's no question in his mind that Blankenship knew about the repeated safety citations at the Upper Big Branch.

"Don was and is a complete micromanager," Shnayerson said. "He knew everything that was going on at Upper Big Branch. A lot of the fault of the explosion would have to be laid at his feet."

Shnayerson described how Blankenship had a special red phone installed at Upper Big Branch so he could reach managers whenever he needed to. "It was like the line to the Kremlin, only it went to Don."

Employees at the mine were instructed to call him "Mr. B.," Shnayerson said. Blankenship would call any time coal production slowed.

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