CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A key government witness testified that prosecutors had threatened to charge him alongside his old coal boss, and he was under an immunity agreement Friday when he took the stand.
In the criminal trial of ex-Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, witness Christopher Blanchard maintained that he didn't break any laws while running the subsidiary that oversaw Upper Big Branch Mine. Blanchard said prosecutors threatened to indict him before they struck a November 2014 immunity agreement, which holds him harmless for his testimony unless he commits perjury. He could either cooperate or be indicted.
"They were two bad choices, sir," Blanchard, former president of Performance Coal, told defense attorney William Taylor.
Blankenship is charged with conspiring to break mine safety laws at Upper Big Branch in West Virginia and lying to financial regulators and investors about company safety. The mine exploded in 2010, killing 29 men. Several other Massey officials already have been convicted in the broader Upper Big Branch investigation that led to Blankenship.
While questioned by the defense in federal court, Blanchard said he didn't conspire with Blankenship to willfully violate safety standards.
Blanchard also said Blankenship did not instruct him to have dispatchers warn miners underground when federal inspectors showed up, so workers could fix or cover up some deficiencies. That scheme is laid out in Blankenship's indictment.
Blanchard said a federal inspector once told him it was a legal practice, as long as the inspector already was on the mine's property.
Prosecutors began questioning Blanchard on Thursday, and continued Friday by playing several phone calls Blankenship secretly recorded in his Massey office. They showed how Blankenship involved himself in the smallest details at Massey mines and pushed for production.
In one call, Blankenship said Blanchard had "everything in front of you to squeeze a few million dollars" from his mining group. Something was bothering Blankenship on the call, though, and he asked for a second time how Blanchard was holding his phone. Blanchard said it was below his chin, instead of in front of his mouth, where Blankenship told him to hold it.
"How's that for specificity for a chairman?" Blankenship said in the call.
Prosecutors then focused on investments that Blankenship could have made to enhance safety and prevent violations.
Blanchard told assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Ruby that it would have taken about $625,000 a year — about what Upper Big Branch could yield in a single day — to add enough miners that the mine would be staffed up to its competition's standards.
Blanchard once requested a $1.8 million new ventilation airshaft, to which Blankenship responded in a note, "Denied. I'll have to see it to believe it first." The airshaft was never put in, and as a result, the mine received citations that were preventable, Blanchard said.
Blanchard said he first requested new $75,000 equipment in 2008 to take care of highly flammable, black-lung-causing coal dust in the mine. A current machine they had was rundown. However, Upper Big Branch never was granted the new equipment. Investigations after the explosion showed the mine was filled with coal dust, and at least 17 of the 29 miners killed had black lung.
Prosecutors looked to pick apart a Massey safety initiative touted by the defense. After the safety plan's implementation, Blanchard said he didn't get additional miners, production quotas stayed the same and violations increased at Upper Big Branch. Blanchard said Blankenship never disciplined him or threatened to shut down the mine because of the uptick.
Defense attorneys will continue questioning Blanchard on Monday.