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Former Massey CEO Don Blankenship denies business ties to disgraced WV judge

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Deep in Mingo County, high on a hill, the body of Joe Marcum rests in peace.

"I'd give all the money in the world to have my dad back," said Marcum's daughter, Garnet. "Money's not important."

Marcum worked at the Upper Big Branch mine, an operation run by a Massey Energy subsidiary in Montcoal. In 2010, an explosion killed 29 miners, including Marcum. The blast was considered the worst mining disaster in 40 years.

A 2011 report from the Mine Safety and Health Administration found 369 citations at UBB, 21 of them flagrant violations of safety standards.

"People can call it an accident, a freak accident, but it was not," Garnet Marcum said. "It was preventable."

The disaster prompted a federal investigation into former Massey officials and employees. Federal prosecutors have said they're investigating a conspiracy involving former Massey officials. They confirm that investigation is ongoing.

Four individuals have been convicted of federal violations so far. In Sept., U.S. District Judge Irene Berger sentenced former Massey official Dave Hughart to 42 months in prison and three years supervised release.

Former UBB superintendent Gary May was sentenced in January to 21 months in jail and $20,000 in fines after he admitted he sidestepped safety rules and covered up the results.

Berger previously sentenced Hughie Stover to 36 months in prison. The former UBB security director was convicted of providing false information to investigators, as well as interrupting the federal probe.

Miner Thomas Harrah pleaded guilty to faking a foreman's license when he carried out mine safety tests between 2008 and 2009, lying to investigations about what happened. Berger sentenced Harrah to 10 months in jail.

Marcum, of Lenore, said she wants another name added to that list.

"Don Blankenship was responsible for those men," Marcum said.

Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, retired eight months after the explosion. In 2011, Alpha Natural Resources acquired the company. Blankenship, arguably the most powerful coal baron in West Virginia, nearly vanished from the public sphere in the months and years after the blast.

Blankenship made a speech and rare public appearance at the Logan Country Club Oct. 17.

(Read Part 1, which covers what Blankenship discussed and what he's up to now.)

Blankenship began his remarks by reciting part of an interview with 13 News reporter Alanna Autler.

"She wanted to know if I knew Mike Thornsbury," Blankenship told the crowd of at least 100 people. "The first thing that came to my mind was, 'I don't know Mike, just like I don't know Barack Obama.'"

But in the same interview, Blankenship said he was familiar with Thornsbury.

Former Mingo County Circuit judge Michael Thornsbury admitted to a federal conspiracy charge Oct. 2.

(Former Mingo County Judge pleads guilty to federal conspiracy charge)

According to prosecutors, Thornsbury tried depriving a man of his constitutional rights. In a separate indictment unsealed in August, Thornsbury was accused of framing his secretary's husband.

Blankenship said he's heard the rumors about his alleged friendship with Thornsbury.

"Somebody told me it was in the newspaper we had dinner in the same restaurant one night," Blankenship said in the exclusive interview. "I think I said 'hi' when I went by him."

The former executive continued, saying he'd probably call Thornsbury "a friend" 20 years ago. He said the last time he saw him was three, perhaps four, years ago.

"Nothing shocks me anymore," Blankenship said, when asked about his reaction to Thornsbury's indictment.

"I haven't talked to him for years," Blankenship said. "I don't know if I have a relationship with him. ... I don't have any connection, business-wise, to him at all."

Court documents prove otherwise. In 2009, the West Virginia Supreme Court intervened in a case where Thornsbury's impropriety was questioned.

Attorney Kevin Thompson represented more than 750 people in a toxic contamination case against Massey subsidiary Rawl Sales & Processing, originally filed in 2004. Hundreds of residents in the Rawl area said the company contaminated their drinking water.

The company reached settlements for several plaintiffs in 2009, finally reaching a mass settlement in 2011. Thornsbury oversaw the creation of a medical monitoring fund for several recipients.

"It's not that he was a good judge," Thompson said. "It was that he was a technically skilled and intelligent judge."

It was the way Thornsbury tried handling that fund in 2009 that concerned Thompson.

"Who knows what he was thinking?" the attorney said. "Clearly, whatever he was thinking wasn't good for me or my clients."

According to court transcripts, Thornsbury and the defendants tried appointing Dr. C. Donovan Beckett to administer the trust fund. They made the decision just days before a hearing with the plaintiffs.

When Thompson and another attorney on the case saw Beckett's name on the paperwork, they realized something was wrong. The realization prompted them to file motions, asking Thornsbury to recuse himself.

"Ding!" Thompson recalled. "I remember a couple of bright light moments in Mingo County, and that was one."

Motions filed by plaintiffs referenced several ties between Beckett and Thornsbury: Beckett worked as Thornsbury's campaign manager and threw a fundraiser with the law firm Jackson Kelly for the judge's campaign.

Other evidence pointed to Beckett and Thornsbury's business relationship. A deed revealed Thornsbury and Beckett as co-debtors on a $1.6 million loan for the business Williamson Renaissance Development. Plaintiffs also found Beckett was a doctor with an "ongoing" contract at Massey Energy, providing medical services to employees.

"I can't ever remember a judge fighting a recusal," Thompson said.

Justice Robin Davis ultimately disqualified Thornsbury based on a case he argued as a private attorney in 1985. Thornsbury sent a letter to the Supreme Court, stating that he represented Rawl in a case that covered a similar geographic area.

Attempts to reach Beckett were unsuccessful.

So why does a link between Blankenship and Thornsbury matter?

Thornsbury recently entered a guilty plea for the unrelated conspiracy scheme. Mike Callaghan worked as a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of West Virginia between 1997 and 2001. Although he admits he knows little about Thornsbury's future, he said he knows how investigations work.

"Every defendant that signs a federal plea agreement, you're under a duty and obligation to cooperate with the federal government," Callaghan said. "So any information that (Thornsbury) has regarding criminal activity of anybody, be it Blankenship or anyone else involved, he certainly would be giving that information over to the government."

Callaghan recently filed civil suits against Thornsbury and other parties on behalf of the Woodruffs, the couple reportedly at the center of the judge's love triangle.

Thornsbury was charged through an information. The filing of an information typically means a defendant is cooperating with the government.

Former Massey executive Hughart implicated Blankenship during a hearing in February. He admitted that with the help of others, he gave warnings to miners about inspections for nearly 10 years. When Berger asked who ordered this policy, if there was one, Hughart replied, "the Chief Executive officer."

Blankenship firmly denied these accusations. He still maintains he ran safe mines.

"Well those of us that work for Massey, particularly myself, we know we did more for safety and more for the industry than any company that came before us," he said.

But for people like Garnet Marcum, some explanations are just not good enough.

"I'm waiting patiently ... for the day that he will go to jail," she said.

Whether Blankenship did anything to warrant charges remains to be seen.

"We don't know if Don Blankenship is facing any problems," Thompson said. "When the dust settles, he just might be the smartest guy in the coal fields."