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The kooky tale of ‘Cocaine Mitch’

An attack ad in West Virginia takes aim at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with a colorful but fact-free nickname. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

“One of my goals as U.S. senator will be to ditch ‘Cocaine Mitch.’ ”
— U.S. Senate primary candidate Don Blankenship (R-W.Va.), in an ad attacking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)

“Having cocaine on a family-owned ship certainly should be of interest because cocaine deaths in this country keep going up, and even though that ship, I think, headed to Europe, we still need to be aware that there are cocaine and other drugs moving on the high seas on commercial ships. And if nothing else, it should make us aware that we need to be careful when these commercial ships are docking, when your country needs to see what’s on them. And certainly, the family of Elaine Chao and McConnell should be no exception to that.”
— Blankenship, in an interview on Fox News, May 2, 2018

This fact check explores whether “Cocaine Mitch” is an accurate nickname for the Senate majority leader.

How did we end up here?

Blankenship, a Republican candidate in the Senate primary in West Virginia, released an ad claiming that “politicians … blew up the coal mine and then put me in prison.”

In fact, Blankenship spent a year in prison because a jury convicted him of conspiracy to violate federal safety standards. A 2010 explosion at a coal mine owned by Massey Energy, where Blankenship was chief executive, killed 29 workers at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. A state investigation found that Massey Energy’s negligence was the main reason for “the faulty ventilation system, the inadequate application of rock dust and the equipment failures” that caused the blast.

Anyway, out of the blue, at the end of this ad, Blankenship calls McConnell “Cocaine Mitch.” He doesn’t explain it. There’s no tie-in to any of the other things Blankenship says in the ad. He just throws it out like a slab of red meat.

Blankenship’s campaign later issued a news release (“Don Blankenship Releases ‘Cocaine Mitch’ Ad Explanation”), which we read with interest.

Let’s dig in.

The Facts

Blankenship is competing in the May 8 primary for the Republican Senate nomination in West Virginia, where Sen. Joe Manchin III (D) is running for reelection in November.

The specific attack line about “Cocaine Mitch” has nothing to do with drug use. As our colleague Amber Phillips of The Fix pointed out, some Republican primary candidates choose to run as foils to the GOP establishment. In West Virginia, Blankenship has been firing off attacks at McConnell, his wife and his in-laws lately.

McConnell is married to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, whose family owns a New York shipping company named Foremost Group. The company was founded as Foremost Maritime Corp. by McConnell’s father-in-law, James S.C. Chao.

As of 2015, McConnell’s net worth was somewhere between $11 million and $43 million, according to Open Secrets. Lawmakers are required to disclose their assets and liabilities in broad ranges, not specific figures, which makes it tough to nail down exactly how wealthy they are.

As The Fact Checker previously reported, McConnell’s net worth appeared to surge in 2008, when he and his wife disclosed a tax-exempt money-market fund valued at between $5 million and $25 million. Elaine Chao inherited this money after her mother died in 2007, a McConnell spokesman told The Fact Checker.

In its news release, the Blankenship campaign pointed to an article in the Nation magazine from October 2014. Relying on an interview with a coast guard official in Colombia, the Nation reported that authorities in that country had found 40 packages of cocaine, or about 90 pounds, aboard the Ping May, a bulk carrier owned by Foremost Group. The ship was docked at the Colombian port city of Santa Marta and destined for the Netherlands with a shipment of coal, the magazine reported.

The Fact Checker found an August 2014 news release from the Colombian navy that corroborated much of the Nation’s reporting. According to the navy, the Ping May had arrived from the United Kingdom in mid-August 2014 and was departing for Rotterdam with its coal shipment later that month when Colombian authorities discovered the 40 packages of cocaine. “No persons were captured in the operation,” the Colombian navy said.

Two months later, when the Nation’s article was published, the Colombian investigation was described as ongoing, and no charges had been filed. The Nation did not follow up with more articles, and we couldn’t find any more information about this case in Colombian media.

“Mitch McConnell and his family have extensive ties to China,” the Blankenship campaign’s news release says. “His father-in-law who founded and owns a large Chinese shipping company has given Mitch and his wife millions of dollars over the years. The company was implicated recently in smuggling cocaine from Colombia to Europe. Hidden aboard a company ship carrying foreign coal was $7 million dollars of cocaine and that is why we’ve deemed him ‘Cocaine Mitch.’”

Okay! Wow! There’s a lot to unpack here!

First, Foremost Group is not a “Chinese shipping company.” It’s an American company, based in New York.

Second, there is no evidence that McConnell’s father-in-law has “given Mitch and his wife millions of dollars over the years.” Elaine Chao received an inheritance valued at between $5 million and $25 million after her mother’s death in 2007. This was years before the drug bust in Santa Marta in 2014. There is no record of McConnell receiving any other financial windfall from his in-laws.

Blankenship’s news release cites a book about McConnell and other politicians called “Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends,” by Peter Schweizer. In an interview with Breitbart News, Schweizer refers to this same $5 million to $25 million, and nothing else, as an example of the money McConnell has received from his father-in-law. “McConnell himself has benefited because a few years ago, James Chao gave Mitch McConnell a gift between five and twenty-five million dollars that more than quadrupled his net worth overnight,” Schweizer told Breitbart. Notice how he describes Elaine Chao’s inheritance as a “gift” from her father to McConnell.

Third, neither the Nation nor the Colombian navy reported that the cocaine was worth $7 million. The only way Blankenship’s campaign could have landed on that number is by making extra-generous assumptions.

In the United States, “the street price varies enormously because it depends on purity, which itself varies enormously,” Tom Wainwright, a journalist who wrote “Narconomics: How to Run A Drug Cartel,” said in an email. “So people tend to quote figures for a pure gram (or kilo). The street price of a pure gram is roughly $150 (i.e., the equivalent of $150,000 per kilo), though again it will vary a lot.”

He added: “In practice, what you buy will probably be cheaper than that because it won’t be anything like 100 percent pure. You might pay $75 for a gram of ‘cocaine’ that is in fact 0.5g cocaine and 0.5g other random stuff.”

Assuming a street price of $150,000 per kilogram for the 40 packages of cocaine on the Ping May gets you to only $6 million, though, so it’s unclear how the Blankenship campaign arrived at $7 million. Perhaps it assumed that diluting the cocaine with cornstarch, caffeine or other additives would yield another $1 million. In any case, prices are lower in Europe, where these drugs were actually headed.

Most important, as of this writing, Colombian authorities do not appear to have filed charges in the Ping May drug bust. Charges would indicate that the Colombian government identified suspects, and who they were.

The Fact Checker reached out to the Colombian Embassy in Washington. We asked what the outcome of the Ping May investigation was and whether any charges were filed. A spokeswoman for the embassy referred us to a captain in the Colombian navy, who did not respond to our questions.

The absence of known charges is key.

The Ping May is a huge vessel with 91,385 tons of cargo capacity, which is about the same as 20 million cats, assuming each cat weighs the average 10 pounds.

For comparison, the 40 packages of cocaine, about 90 pounds total, would weigh the same as nine cats.

Joaquin Perez, a criminal defense lawyer in Miami who specializes in international drug-trafficking cases, said it would be difficult for Colombian authorities to charge anyone in these circumstances.

He said, “Forty kilos in a big ship with containers and stuff like that is not a significant amount, and in order to be able to ascribe responsibility to a person in such a large ship,” authorities would need to establish a clear nexus. Had the 40 kilos been found inside a shipping container, perhaps the company that owned the cargo inside might be held responsible. (The Ping May is a bulk carrier, though, so there were no containers.)

The Colombian navy said the drugs were found in the ship’s chain locker, a forward part of the ship that contains the anchor chain when the anchor is up.

“If it was found in the captain’s room, then you can charge the captain, or in one of the crew members’ rooms,” Perez said. “But short of that, I don’t know how you can charge anything.”

In short, just because Colombian officials found cocaine on the Ping May doesn’t mean Foremost Group was shipping it or planning to profit from its sale. Who hid the drugs in the ship’s chain locker? It’s anyone’s guess, but it’s important to remember that Colombian authorities do not appear to have charged the ship’s captain or crew. They didn’t charge Foremost Group or the Chaos. They certainly didn’t charge McConnell.

Spokespeople for McConnell and Foremost Group would not comment, and the Blankenship campaign did not respond to our questions.

The Pinocchio Test

This is a Four Pinocchio claim!

Set aside the four or five degrees of separation between McConnell and his wife’s family’s shipping company and the fact that Elaine Chao collected the inheritance at issue years before 2014. Without charges or further information from Colombia, we can’t determine who was trying to smuggle drugs on the Ping May.

We understand that “Cornstarch Mitch” is not as catchy as “Cocaine Mitch.” But the bottom line is that Blankenship has no evidence to support his crude and incendiary attack.

Four Pinocchios

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“One of my goals as U.S. senator will be to ditch ‘Cocaine Mitch.’”
in a campaign ad
Tuesday, May 1, 2018