Prosecutors done questioning key witness in ex-coal CEO case

AP News
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Posted: Oct 30, 2015 8:04 PM

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — After a key government witness spent days helping defense lawyers paint a former coal boss as safety-minded, prosecutors reined their witness in Friday by directing him to testify about dozens of serious mine safety violations he agreed could have been avoided by hiring more miners or permitting more time to tend to safety tasks.

In Charleston federal court Friday, prosecutors wrapped up a second round of questioning with former Massey Energy subsidiary president Christopher Blanchard. Blanchard took the stand against ex-Massey CEO Don Blankenship under an immunity agreement with the government in a larger investigation centering on the deadliest U.S. mine explosion in four decades.

Prosecutors questioned Blanchard for a little more than a day last week, before defense attorneys kept him on the stand for almost five days to interpret more than 180 documents aimed at aiding Blankenship's case.

Blanchard had told the defense that he himself didn't break any laws, and said he did not conspire with Blankenship to break safety laws. Previously, he told prosecutors he believed Blankenship had an understanding that it was less expensive to pay fines than for measures to prevent safety violations.

On Friday, the prosecution admitted it did not expect Blanchard to deny he was part of a conspiracy.

"Much of what the witness said in (cross-examination) was a surprise to the United States," Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Ruby told Judge Irene Berger.

Blankenship could face up to 30 years in prison on charges of conspiring to break mine safety laws at Upper Big Branch Mine and lying to financial regulators and investors about company safety. The southern West Virginia mine exploded in 2010, killing 29 men. Blanchard's subsidiary, Performance Coal, oversaw the mine.

During his questioning, Ruby made the point that all the memos in which Massey says it pushed for safety didn't necessarily equate to spending money on safety. In fact, the prosecutor showed Blanchard dozens of serious violations Friday in which combustible coal and dust lined the mine, decrepit roof conditions could have been potentially deadly and the ventilation through the mine was dangerously low, among other deficiencies.

In one memo, Blankenship questioned why subsidiary presidents asked for more safety workers when current ones didn't do their jobs.

"So why have more?" Blankenship wrote.

Blanchard acknowledged that having more miners or more time to attend to safety could have prevented many of the violations, and that Blankenship could have provided both. Blanchard said he didn't know of a time when he or anyone else was reprimanded for any of the violations.

Still, the government's key witness wasn't completely cooperative with prosecutors Friday.

For a second straight day, Ruby made Blanchard double-check his 2014 grand jury testimony after his answers didn't line up. Blanchard has testified to the fact that last year he was faced with the choice of cooperating with the government or getting indicted, and his immunity agreement is voided if he lies.

When Ruby asked about miners being disciplined for management decisions, Blanchard said he "didn't believe that happened very often." He also said he "didn't believe it to be true" that miners were forced to work in areas without adequate ventilation.

The defense has asked for another chance to question Blanchard. The prosecution reminded the defense that it can call Blanchard as a witness again later.

The judge has not ruled on the defense's request.