A former foreperson at a coal plant in West Virginia is suing her former employer, Murray Energy Corp., and its boss, Robert Murray, for allegedly improperly firing her after she refused to make political contributions to Murray's chosen candidates. Most of you are probably intrigued by that idea and would like to hear more. A few of you don't care and have already closed the window and aren't reading this. (Come back!)
And then there are a certain few, people who watch politics closely and have a good memory for names, who read "Robert Murray" and thought: Well, here we go again.
The allegation from Jean Cochenour, detailed in her suit and well-summarized by the Charleston Gazette's Ken Ward Jr., is as follows: Cochenour worked at a mine in Marion County as a foreperson. While in that position, which is supervisorial, she received letters from Murray detailing candidates to which she should make donations. One letter, which she received after she'd already been fired, is included in the lawsuit. It ends like this:
Despite receiving similar letters previously, Cochenour passed. Earlier this year she was summoned to Murray's office and fired, allegedly for allowing employees to work overtime on a Saturday. The lawsuit suggests, instead, that it was due to "an animus against her as the only female foreman at the mine and/or because of her failure to donate to the candidates of Mr. Murray’s choice."
At this point, we rewind the clock a bit to late 2012. An article titled "Coal Miner's Donor" ran in the New Republic, detailing allegations very similar to what Cochenour alleges happened. "The pressure to give begins as soon as employees enter the company" according to sources within the company interviewed by Post alum Alec MacGillis. "At the time of hiring, supervisors tell employees that they are expected to contribute to the company PAC by automatic payroll deduction — typically 1 percent of their salary, a level confirmed by a 2008 letter to employees from the PAC’s treasurer." That PAC then distributes contributions to primarily Republican candidates.
MacGillis noted that Murray Energy employees also gave directly to candidates, some $1.4 million between 2007 and 2012 -- which Cochenour suggests was not always voluntary. "The ritual" of giving to PAC fundraisers, MacGillis wrote, "becomes expensive for Murray’s engineers, surveyors, and accountants." (According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the total is now over $4.3 million -- almost all to Republicans.)
Employers have a lot of latitude around mandating political activity. But during the 2012 race, Murray draw negative attention for one mandate in particular.
When Mitt Romney came to southeastern Ohio for a campaign rally, Murray instructed his miners to leave work to attend, and some of them stood onstage with the Republican presidential candidate. As it turns out, attendance was mandatory, and the miners who went lost pay for the privilege. (Romney ended up using video from the appearance in campaign ads, prompting a rebuttal ad from President Obama, which is below.) The combination of the miner rally and the MacGillis report prompted calls for an investigation from the Ohio Democratic Party and a Federal Election Commission complaint against Murray from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
After Obama won, Murray fired over 150 employees, blaming the president's policies. (He also offered a prayer to his employees the day after the election which read, in part, "The takers outvoted the producers. ... Lord, please forgive me and anyone with me in Murray Energy Corp. for the decisions that we are now forced to make to preserve the very existence of any of the enterprises that you have helped us build.") A follow-up from MacGillis suggested that many of those positions were later refilled.
To the Gazette's Ward, Murray Energy described Cochenour's allegations as "wholly without merit, and we will vigorously defend against her frivolous claims." Incidentally, Murray Energy and Robert Murray settled a lawsuit in 2012 after accusing a news outlet of libel for, among other things, describing environmental violations by Murray Energy. The outlet was the Gazette, and the target of the suit was Ken Ward, Jr.
In the settlement, Murray Energy got to run a piece in the paper defending Robert Murray as "A Great Man For Coal Miners and Their Families." That was the headline. The paper's publisher pointed out that the settlement "contains no admission by the newspaper that anything it published was incorrect, libelous or defamatory," as Romenesko.com reports.
Cochenour would like to be reinstated at her old position, with back pay and appropriate salary adjustments. That's enough money to make large donations to whomever she might please.