This week, Weekend Reader brings you an excerpt from The Price Of Justice: A True Story Of Greed And Corruption, by Laurence Leamer. A real-life drama, The Price Of Justice details a court case in West Virginia in which Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, one of the top coal-producing companies in the U.S., drove a competitor into bankruptcy in order to buy the mine from the bank at a fraction of the cost. He also ignored worker safety protocol, which led to the Upper Big Branch tragedy in April of 2010. And for his final act, Blankenship bribed judges to rule in his favor when the bankrupted competitor took him to court.
The author spoke to The National Memo about his interest in the case, and shared what inspired him to write The Price of Justice:
When I was a young man, I read a great book about eastern Kentucky called Night Comes to the Cumberlands by Harry Caudill. I decided I would go down to the Appalachian Mountains and learn about these people. And so I did. I got a job in a coal mine outside Beckley, West Virginia. I developed the highest admiration for my fellow miners and it was a seminal experience in my life. Forty years later I read a story in The New York Times about how Hugh Caperton, a small mine owner, had been driven into bankruptcy by Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy. Caperton had hired two lawyers on contingency, Bruce Stanley and Dave Fawcett, and they had won a $50 million verdict in a West Virginia court. But Blankenship had spent $3.5 million electing a Supreme Court of West Virginia justice who was the crucial vote in turning back the verdict. The whole thing reeked of corruption and John Grisham had taken the story and written a novel about it, The Verdict. What I have written in The Price of Justice goes far beyond Grisham’s plot, with twists and turns that would have been too implausible to put in a novel.
You can purchase the book here.
West Virginia is the second-poorest state in the country, but when I was living there in 1971 people were proud of their state and culture and had a sense that things were getting better. Then Beckley had vitality, and I liked to go downtown and walk the streets. But when I returned four decades later, to meet Hugh Caperton, whose coal mine had been driven into bankruptcy by Massey Energy’s CEO Don Blankenship, downtown Beckley was like most of coal country: full of empty stores and dirty windows.
The union I’d thought would last forever was a forlorn institution that serviced mainly retirees and the disabled. Back in the 1970s, there had been a big fight over strip-mining. Few could have imagined that not only would its opponents lose but there would be massive mountaintop removal operations, leveling the mountains into high-altitude parking lots.
Blankenship’s footprint was everywhere. He had broken one of the most militant unions in America. He was promoting politics that would end or limit the social welfare programs that kept many West Virginians out of desperate circumstance—programs that Blankenship believed sapped resolve and daring. He was the most vociferous defender of mountaintop removal in the state.
I traveled next to Pittsburgh to meet with Caperton’s two lawyers, Bruce Stanley and David Fawcett III, who are the central characters in this book. They are partners at Pittsburgh-based Reed Smith, one of the largest law firms in the world, and I met them in their offices on the seventh floor of the firm’s imposing building.
I talked with Stanley first. He is short and plump and has a warm, unassuming manner that makes him instantly likable. He seems a gentle soul who has somehow wandered into the wrong profession, but the bold, powerful words he spoke that day suggested that it could be a fatal mistake to underestimate him. Stanley grew up dirt-poor in southern West Virginia, an hour and a half northwest of Beckley. Despite his two decades in Pittsburgh, he has never tried to hide his Appalachian roots.
Stanley had other important cases pending against Massey and Blankenship, involving wrongful death and the poisoning of the water of hundreds of citizens. The lawyer explained to me how Blankenship’s company and its disregard for safety was so outrageous that he believed Massey had been responsible for the deaths of scores of miners. Blankenship fostered vendettas against anyone who dared challenge his sovereignty over coal country.
I sensed that this story was far larger and more socially significant than I had first realized. It wasn’t just about one lawsuit; there were half a dozen. And it wasn’t just about West Virginia. It was about the nature of justice in America.
I then walked over to David Fawcett’s office. Fawcett, who dresses elegantly, is a precisely spoken third-generation Pittsburgh lawyer, the least likely person to have been Stanley’s partner in a decade-long struggle against Blankenship and Massey Energy. The tall, lean attorney is cautious and circumspect, and it took me a long while to win his confidence. Fawcett didn’t feel the harm Blankenship was doing in the same visceral way West Virginia- born Stanley did, but he, too, had been brought up with a concern for justice. He, too, had taken on other cases against Massey, and he was just as determined to go to any length necessary to bring Blankenship down.
Blankenship, the most powerful coal baron in the history of the industry, had risen up just as the industry began what in Appalachia is probably a terminal decline, when West Virginia desperately needed leaders to help the state look elsewhere for a future. The worse the future appeared, the more Blankenship’s power tightened. For over a decade, just about the only significant things that stood in the way of Blankenship’s control over a state and an industry seemed to be these two Pittsburgh attorneys, who had undertaken a relentless legal quest to bring justice to this corner of America.
Many people view West Virginians as another people, remote and distant, unworthy of concern. When Spike TV did a series on a West Virginia coal mine, the program’s editors added subtitles beneath the images, as if the miners spoke in an incomprehensible foreign tongue.
I had never had any trouble understanding that language. And so I headed down to West Virginia and reentered a world I had known long ago. As I drove those mountain roads, I kept thinking of the miners I had worked with so many years ago. To me, the most troubling aspect of their lives had been their fatalism. They’d often done unsafe things and taken chances they should not have. They’d figured that if bad things were going to happen, they were going to happen, no matter what you did or what precautions you took, so you might as well do pretty much as you pleased.
Stanley’s father and brother had been miners, and he was as much a son of West Virginia as any of the men with whom I had worked. But he had not one iota of that mountain fatalism, and neither did Fawcett. They fought Blankenship with every ounce of their energy and ability. No matter how desperate and forlorn their chances, they refused to give up. Theirs was the story I would tell this time.
Excerpted from THE PRICE OF JUSTICE: A True Story of Greed and Corruption by Laurence Leamer, published May 7th by Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by Laurence Leamer. All rights reserved.