Getting Even Tougher on Corporate Crime

December 4th, 2014 by Phil Mattera

blankenshipWest Virginia’s coal country is not very fond of the Environmental Protection Agency these days, but another part of the federal government — the Justice Department — is viewed more sympathetically.

The reason is that Don Blankenship, the most reviled man in the state, is being prosecuted. A federal grand jury recently handed up an indictment with four criminal counts against Blankenship (photo), the former CEO of Massey Energy, for conspiring with other managers to violate safety laws on a massive scale, thereby creating the conditions that led to the 2010 Upper Big Branch disaster, in which 29 miners were killed.

It is a rarity for criminal charges to reach the CEO level, and if any chief executive deserves such special treatment, Blankenship is the one. The indictment paints a picture of a manager who was utterly contemptuous of federal safety regulations and thus of the safety and well being of his employees. He is said to have called the use of workers for safety compliance “ridiculous” and “crazy.”

What’s really crazy is that Blankenship is not facing even more serious charges. He could theoretically spend as much as 31 years in prison, but if convicted he would likely serve much less time. The indictment makes a compelling case for the conspiracy charges, but they also detail activity that could easily be construed as homicide or at least negligent homicide. In fact, back in 2010 there were calls for Blankenship to be charged with murder.

Blankenship is emblematic of a type of business misconduct that brings about serious harm or even death to workers, consumers or the general public. This kind of brazen corporate behavior originated in the 19th Century and persisted in the 20th, especially in industries such as tobacco and asbestos. A new investigation by the Center for Public Integrity documents steps by the petroleum industry beginning in the late 1940s to suppress evidence linking benzene, an ingredient in gasoline, to leukemia.

It was not long ago that business apologists were claiming that such egregious cases of corporate irresponsibility were a thing of the past. We were made to believe that Big Business had cleaned up its act and was now taking the lead in promoting ethical and sustainable practices.

That notion took a beating in 2010, which saw not only the Upper Big Branch explosion but also the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico brought about by the negligence of BP, Transocean and Halliburton.

This year corporate wrong-doing is once again in full bloom. At the center of it has been General Motors, the company whose dangerous Corvair compact gave rise to the modern public interest movement. Fifty years later, the new, post-bankruptcy GM is again facing charges of endangering lives through foolish cost-cutting measures.

GM, however, is not alone this time. We’re seeing negligent behavior by other automakers, including the Japanese, and now a scandal is growing over the practices of airbag supplier Takata, which is alleged to have covered up evidence that its products were rupturing and spewing metal debris at drivers. Now the company is resisting calls in the U.S. for a nationwide recall.

For a long time, the discussion on business misconduct has focused on the need to bring criminal charges against top executives. That’s a worthy goal, but we need to give more attention to the nature of the charges. A CEO who has knowingly placed human lives in danger should be prosecuted as toughly as street criminals who do the same. Potential penalties along the lines of life imprisonment may be the only thing that can deter the Don Blankenships of the world.

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