News Outlets Must Face Libel Claims From Former Mining Exec

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (CN) — A federal judge refused to dismiss defamation claims against more than a dozen news outlets that called a former coal CEO and Republican Senate candidate a felon, even though he was convicted of a lesser charge.

The case dates back to the 2010 explosion of Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, which left 29 mine workers dead. Don Blankenship was the CEO of the company at the time and he faced criminal charges for conspiring to willfully violate mine safety and health standards. He was eventually convicted of the misdemeanor charge and served one year in federal prison. 

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship speaks during a town hall to kick off his Senate campaign in January 2018 (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

But that time in lockup didn’t slow down Blankenship, who at one point was one of the most powerful men in West Virginia. Fresh out of the slammer, he set a new goal: “I was going to be the first senator to win a nomination from a halfway house,” Blankenship said in a phone interview Wednesday morning. 

The former mining executive said, despite his criminal record, he was on his way to challenging incumbent U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat. After a solid showing at a 2018 GOP primary debate, however, Blankenship said the establishment turned against him. Before long, journalists across the cable news spectrum began attacking the candidate and linking him to the mining disaster, using the term “felon” to describe his misdemeanor conviction.

“Mitch McConnell and the GOP came on TV and defamed me and were able to beat me — the president’s son and the president himself came out against me,” Blankenship said.   

He came in third in the Republican primary race and the winner, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, went on to lose to Manchin in November 2018.

Blankenship filed a federal lawsuit in West Virginia against news outlets, political organizations and individual journalists. He alleged defamation and false-light invasion of privacy, claiming his primary loss was linked to being falsely labeled as a felon.

“The U.S. Senate and Fox News and national media can sabotage a U.S. election much easier than the Russians can,” he said Wednesday morning.  

In an 80-page opinion Tuesday, Senior U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr. cited numerous examples of the former CEO being called a felon in print or on TV. The judge dismissed some individual media figures from the case — most notably, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and Fox News’ Andrew Napolitano — but he denied motions to dismiss from major news outlets and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. 

“All the defendants’ statements identifying the plaintiff as a ‘felon’ are materially false. The term ‘felon’ is an objective label with a clear legal meaning,” Copenhaver wrote. “A person either is or is not a felon; there is no in between or room for ‘substantial truth.’”

While Tuesday’s ruling is just one step in a larger court battle over words, Blankenship said the case is about his longstanding war with the press. 

“I’ve been defamed by the national media and politicians for 35 years,” he said. “I’ve been branded as an anti-union, pro-coal, outspoken individual, while in my view I’ve just been using my right to free speech.”

Blankenship pointed to one specific spat during his Senate campaign. After McConnell, the Senate majority leader, spoke out against his candidacy, Blankenship coined the now infamous title “cocaine Mitch” in his political ads — referring to allegations that McConnell’s father-in-law owned a vessel that was found to have 90 pounds of cocaine on it in 2014 when it was set to leave Colombia.

“I didn’t think I was doing anything different than what he had already done,” Blankenship said. “When he started calling me a felon, that’s when he crossed the line.”

McConnell is not a defendant in the case.

In a phone call, a representative for Fox News declined to comment on the ruling. Requests for comment from other defendant media outlets were not returned Wednesday morning.

Blankenship’s tenure at Massey Energy, starting in the early 1990s, led to record profits but also saw environmental and mine safety issues, as slurry spills and workplace injuries marred the company’s reputation. The former CEO disputes the worker safety claims in a forthcoming book set to be released next week. He has long been outspoken about his disbelief of the science of climate change and coal’s role in the issue.  

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