Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, has long had a lot of influence in West Virginia. The top executive of the company that owns the mine where 25 miners died this week looms large in state affairs both because of Massey 's economic importance and because of his own penchant for political bluster. But in 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Blankenship might be wielding too much influence, after he spent $3 million of his own money to get a judge elected to a West Virginia court that was ruling on a Massey-related case.
As detailed in an ABC News investigation, Blankenship vacationed on the Riviera with one West Virginia Supreme Court Justice and underwrote an ad campaign supporting the election of another while a $50 million judgment against Massey Energy was before the court. Blankenship's apparently successful multi-million-dollar attempt to change the composition of the court became the basis of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision -- and the source of a slew of controversial television ads.
"Don Blankenship prides himself on being tough and talking tough," said David Fawcett, a Pittsburgh attorney who has tangled with Blankenship more than once. "He's tried to take that tough guy approach into the political and judicial arenas."
In 2002, Fawcett helped win a $50 million judgment against Massey in a West Virginia court for several smaller mining companies who claimed 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. The commercials accused McGraw of "letting a child rapist go free" and of being too "radical" for West Virginia.
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. (Blankenship had less success in 2006, when he spent millions more of his own cash trying to oust Democrats from the state legislature. Democrats gained six seats instead.)
In 2008, four 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 twice provided the deciding vote in Massey's favor. The jury verdict against Massey was overturned.
A second state Supreme Court justice who initially voted to overturn the Massey verdict later recused himself from the case after pictures surfaced showing him on vacation with Blankenship. Elliott "Spike" Maynard was seen in timestamped photos with Blankenship apparently taken on three successive days in Monaco while Caperton v. Massey was before the court.
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 plaintiff appealed the West Virginia Supreme Court's decision in Caperton v. Massey 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.
The long legal battle, meanwhile, and Don Blankenship's long shadow in West Virginia, became the basis for John Grisham's novel "The Appeal." And Blankenship is now channeling his political activism into his Twitter account.
Asked for comment Wednesday, Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater said the company was devoting its attention to rescue efforts, and that Blankenship was meeting with families of miners and with government officials.