CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Facing criminal charges in the deadliest U.S. coal mine disaster in four decades, ex-coal baron Don Blankenship has fallen silent for the first time in a while.
A gag order issued shortly after the 43-page indictment this week means Blankenship will have to hit pause on the defiant public relations campaign he's waged since the 2010 explosion that killed 29 men at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia.
The former Massey Energy CEO has vehemently denied all wrongdoing in the disaster. More than that, he's spent his time attempting to remake his image from that of a profit-minded, mustachioed villain to a crusader for keeping miners safe.
Even while under federal investigation, Appalachia's long-established coal boss kept spreading his side of the story: I'm being targeted. It wasn't my fault.
"Rather than be honest after the explosion and attribute the explosion to the obvious causes the politicians and (the Mine Safety and Health Administration) launched a witch hunt," Blankenship wrote on his website earlier this year.
Blankenship has blogged, tweeted, shot his own documentaries and taken TV interviews, even with outlets he considers biased. All of those communications dropped after his indictment Thursday, which accuses him of deliberately skirting safety laws, impeding federal enforcement officials and lying to the Securities Exchange Commission about safety practices, all to maximize profits. He could spend up to 31 years in prison.
An attorney's statement was all that followed from Blankenship, and it struck a familiar chord.
"Don Blankenship has been a tireless advocate for mine safety," attorney William W. Taylor III said. "His outspoken criticism of powerful bureaucrats has earned this indictment. He will not yield to their effort to silence him. He will not be intimidated."
For families and friends of victims, still hearing Blankenship's rationales has ranged from nauseating to infuriating.
This April, Blankenship released a documentary leading up to the fourth anniversary of Upper Big Branch. It dismissed the four investigations that found worn and broken cutting equipment created a spark that ignited accumulations of coal dust and methane gas. Broken and clogged water sprayers then allowed what should have been a minor flare-up to become an inferno.
Instead, it repeated an argument authorities have dismissed: natural gas in the mine, and not methane gas and excess coal dust, was at the root of the explosion.
The documentary finishes with a photo collage of the deceased miners set to violin music. Some victims' loved ones said they couldn't bear it.
"It's pouring salt on an open wound," Amber Herald, an Ohio resident whose friend Josh Napper died in the mine, said when the video came out. "Every day, (Blankenship) has a lie to tell. But to actually put it in a film and sit and lie, knowing what he's done, I don't know how he does it."
After reading an indictment painting Blankenship as a bullish micromanager, elected officials only regretted that Blankenship was being treated too civilly.
"In my view, Don Blankenship, and the mines he once operated, treated miners and their safety with callousness and open disregard," U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, said in prepared statement after the indictment. "As he goes to trial, he will be treated far fairer and with more dignity than he ever treated the miners he employed. And, frankly, it's more than he deserves."
Throughout the investigation, Blankenship never wavered in his defiance. Asked by ABC News in April if he thought he'd be indicted, Blankenship said, "No," with a chuckle. Did he ever cut corners on safety? "Never did."
The indictment paints the exact opposite picture. He threatened one manager's livelihood for not trying to cut more costs, it says.
"You have a kid to feed. Do your job," Blankenship said in a note to the manager, according to the indictment.
On Blankenship's website, he labels himself an "American Competitionist," fighting against President Barack Obama and his energy and business policies. He says we're in a "Regcession," a recession spurred by overregulation on industries like mining.
What it amounts to is the former executive's "parallel universe," U.S. Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat who has sponsored Upper Big Branch-inspired mine safety legislation.
"The U.S. attorney did a hell of a job," Miller told The Associated Press. "But the fact of the matter was, (Blankenship) was buffaloing, to be polite, everybody in the West Virginia community about the operation of his mines, the safety of his mines and the risk to his workers. They paid a tragic toll."
Associated Press writer Dylan Lovan contributed from Louisville, Kentucky.