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Massey Energy's Blankenship: No shame, but plenty of blame

By Dana Milbank
Sunday, July 25, 2010; A17

If Don Blankenship had any sense of shame, he'd crawl into a mine and hide.

As CEO of Massey Energy, he has presided over a coal company that had thousands of violations in recent years, leading up to the April explosion that killed 29 of his miners. The company now faces a federal criminal investigation into what the government has called negligent and reckless practices.

But Blankenship must have no sense of shame, because he visited the National Press Club last week to complain about "knee-jerk political reactions" to mine deaths and to demand that the Obama administration lighten regulations on his dirty and dangerous company. "We need to let businesses function as businesses," an indignant Blankenship proclaimed. "Corporate business is what built America, in my opinion, and we need to let it thrive by, in a sense, leaving it alone."

The CEO was asked what he could have done to prevent the deadly explosion. "I probably should've sued MSHA" -- that's the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration -- "rather than waiting" until now, he said. In the future, he added, "you'll see not only coal companies but many companies resist the efforts of EPA and others that are impeding their ability to pursue their careers, or their happiness."

Poor CEO Blankenship. That mean federal government is not allowing him to pursue his happiness, just because his employees are dead. It brings to mind the sad plight of the BP CEO, Tony Hayward, who visited the Gulf Coast that his company has wrecked and complained that "I'd like my life back." Happily, Hayward got his wish and returned to yachting.

It's easy to paint Blankenship as a villain, with his moustache, double chin and rough edges (he twice lamented the "abstract poverty" in the world). But his theme -- and his complete absence of corporate responsibility -- is very much the message corporate America has adopted in this mid-term campaign year: If you've got a problem, blame the government.

Consider the efforts this month by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, once a center of moderate Republicanism that worked with both parties but now a sort of radicalized corporate Tea Party, spending $75 million this fall mostly to defeat Democrats. The chairman of the group's board -- on which Blankenship served until recently -- accused the Obama administration and congressional Democrats of a "general attack on our free enterprise system." Specifically, the chamber accused the Democrats of "an ill-advised course of government expansion, major tax increases, massive deficits, and job-destroying regulations."

Taxes? The nonpartisan Tax Foundation in May described Americans' tax burden in 2009 as the lowest since 1959. Job-destroying regulations? The lack of regulation on Wall Street led to a financial collapse that killed millions of jobs. Massive deficits? One of the biggest causes of the gap is the $800 billion stimulus package supported by -- wait for it -- the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And the chamber wants the government to spend even more: It demands that Congress "quickly pass a multiyear federal surface transportation bill." That would costs hundreds of billions more. And let's not forget the chamber's desire to "get the money from the government" to help pay for the BP oil cleanup.

President Obama wisely ignored that request and forced BP to pay for its mess. Likewise, the administration didn't accept the claims made by Goldman Sachs officials, who told Congress that they did nothing wrong in offering financial instruments that accelerated the market collapse. This month, Goldman agreed to pay $550 million as part of a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission over those very actions.

If anything, Americans think Obama has not been tough enough on business. In a new poll by the Pew Research Center, large majorities think that recent government policies have helped big banks (74 percent) and large corporations (70 percent), but only 27 percent think they have helped the middle class. This suggests Americans, though angry about the economy, aren't about to take the corporations' side against Obama -- particularly if corporate America keeps sending spokesmen such as Blankenship to make the case.

"There's 42,000 people killed a year on the highways," the coal boss offered as a way to put his miners' deaths in perspective. He protested that clean-water restrictions are so tight that even Perrier wouldn't pass. Blankenship's advice to fellow CEOs: "You should push back on the government."

He's got that reversed. Government should push back against a corporate culture that has lost its sense of shame.

danamilbank@washpost.com

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