April 3, 2008— -- "If you're going to start taking pictures of me, you're liable to get shot," the chairman of one of the country's biggest coal mining companies, Don Blankenship of Massey Energy, told an ABC News reporter before grabbing the reporter's camera.
The incident this week, in the parking lot of a Massey Energy office in Belfry, Ky., is just the latest chapter in the saga of Blankenship's controversial relationship with the West Virginia Supreme Court, which is hearing appeals that could cost his company hundreds of millions of dollars.
Photographs recently emerged showing Blankenship vacationing on the French Riviera with the state Supreme Court Chief Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard.
Earlier, Blankenship helped to raise $3.5 million for a television advertising campaign that led to the defeat of another Supreme Court justice.
Massey Energy has also moved to have another justice recuse himself from cases involving the company because of an alleged bias against Massey and Blankenship.
The parking lot incident took place as ABC News sought to ask Blankenship questions for a report to be broadcast Monday on ABC News' "World News With Charles Gibson" and "Nightline."
In a letter to ABC, Blankenship's lawyers said, "Mr. Blankenship has been a frequent target for harassment and physical attacks over the years, so his reaction is not so surprising when you consider that he was approached unannounced by an intruder on private property."
The lawyers claimed the ABC reporter "pushed his camera closer to Mr. Blankenship's face" without "having identified himself or his news organization."
Tape of the incident shows the reporter twice identified himself as being from ABC News as he walked up to Blankenship.
As seen on the tape, Blankenship first issued his warning about being "shot" and then approached the reporter and put out his left hand to grab the camera, twisting the view finder and breaking off the microphone in the process.
The tape was not damaged, and the video will be included in the ABC News report Monday.
Blankenship told the Charleston Daily Mail he couldn't recall any threats. "Quite frankly, I don't know what I said except that I know I'm never loud, vulgar or rude to strangers."
The ABC News reporter, Asa Eslocker, said Blankenship grabbed him around the collar with both hands.
Blankenship declined to answer questions in person about his relationship with the Supreme Court chief justice but in a statement issued later, he said, "The notion that I have taken any action to improperly influence the Supreme Court of West Virginia is baseless and absurd."
Blankenship and Justice Maynard have acknowledged they spent several days together on vacation in Europe at a time when the court was considering appeals involving Blankenship's coal company, the country's fourth largest.
"Each of us paid our own way," Blankenship said.
Justice Maynard told ABC News of Blankenship, "I think he bought a dinner, I bought a dinner. I think we each bought a dinner."
Both men deny discussing the case while on vacation together.