We're Koched-Out On Freebees for Billionaire Polluters

On Monday, federal prosecutors announced that they were seeking a maximum sentence for former Massey Energy CEO Donald Blankenship, who was found guilty of conspiracy back in December.

Considering what Blankenship is guilty of doing -- breaking safety laws that could have saved the lives of 29 men who died at an explosion in one of his West Virginia mines -- you’d think that his means he’ll likely spend the rest of his life in the big house for the death of those 29 men.

Well, think again.

Despite having the blood of almost 30 men on his hands, Blankenship will only spend at maximum one year in prison.

This is the punishment federal prosecutors are now asking for, and even they think it doesn’t go far enough in taking into account the scale of his crimes.

In his court-filing demanding that Blankenship get the maximum one-year sentence, U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby said that, “Under any fair assessment, only a sentence of many years in prison could truly reflect the seriousness of [the[ Defendant’s crime and provide just punishment, which the law requires the court to do….A year is woefully insufficient… but under the law on the books, it is the best the court can do.”

So Donald Blankenship kills 29 men and only goes to prison for a year while the kid down the street sells a few joints and gets locked up for twenty years.

Such is life in the American criminal justice system, where the rich and powerful literally get away with murder and the poor and oppressed get the shaft and then some.

This kind of situation is, theoretically at least, what the much-vaunted bipartisan criminal justice reform effort in Congress is meant to stop.

It’s supposed to the bridge towards a fairer future.

But now the Koch brothers are trying to hijack it.

Part of the reason that the movement to reform the criminal justice system has now stalled in Congress is the fact that Republicans, working on behalf of the Koch network billionaires and corporate America, are using it as cover to make it even harder to punish white collar criminals like Don Blankenship.

They want to include , as part of any package of criminal justice reform legislation, language that would change way the feds can use a legal doctrine known as “mens rea” in white collar cases.

If these Republicans succeed, white collar criminals could get away with breaking the law if they simply said that they "didn’t know" they or their business and colleagues were breaking the law.

They can’t do this now -- it’s that whole “ignorance of the law is no excuse” thing.

This sounds like a minor bit of legal esoterica, it’s not.

The power to convict someone of committing a crime regardless of whether or not they knew they were breaking the law when they committed that crime is an important tool for prosecutors.

This is especially true in white collar cases involving things like pollution, food safety, and financial regulation.

Without mens rea, the government would have a much harder time convicting and punishing corporate criminals like, say, Don Blankenship, if it couldn’t 100 percent prove that they knew they were breaking the law and that that lawbreaking would definitely lead to the death of 29 men.

In other words, the Koch brothers’ version of criminal justice reform makes the situation we have now, where the superrich can literally get away with murder, even worse.

Oh, and it also turns out that the Charles and David Koch have a very personal reason for wanting to gut mens rea.

As Koch Industries’ general counsel Mark Holden told the New York Times recently “the company’s efforts to pursue revisions in federal criminal law were inspired in part by a criminal case filed 15 years ago against Koch Industries claiming that it covered up releases of hazardous air pollution at a Texas oil refinery. Those charges resulted in a guilty plea by the company and a $20 million penalty.”

Surprise, surprise -- the Kochs are just looking out for themselves. And the sad thing is that it could end up sabotaging the entire criminal justice reform effort in Congress.

A bill that’s effectively a gimme for polluters and white collar criminals might be too much for many Democrats to swallow. Which is a tragedy, because we really do need to change how sentencing laws work in this country.

That change, however, shouldn’t come at the expense of one of the important tools the government has to hold white collar criminals accountable for the actions.

Call your local congressperson today and tell them that you support real criminal justice reform -- not a Koched-out freebee for billionaire polluters. Tell them to strip the mens rea provision from the legislation.


Fred9303's picture
Fred9303 7 years 9 weeks ago

Since the current law is weak, I would urge the prosecutor to break this case up into 29 cases. At least then we could approach some level of justice.

Johnnie Dorman's picture
Johnnie Dorman 7 years 9 weeks ago

The criminal enterprize, known as, "Koch induestries," is one of the most destructive parts of what is wrong with America. These crooks are the A-hole of America.

2950-10K's picture
2950-10K 7 years 9 weeks ago

Sentence Blankenship to work inside one of his own mines, and the Kochs to live right next to one of their refineries......"Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it." Dickens

cccccttttt 7 years 9 weeks ago

Weak laws create a dangerous situaton for Mr. Blankenship when his year is up.

He will forever have to walk in fear of pay back from the relative of a miner he indirectly killed.


dr818dr's picture
dr818dr 7 years 9 weeks ago

It's not just the rich who get away with "murder". The illegal alien who killed my son spent all of 43 days in jail and that was a long sentence. Many who kill while driving without a license never spend a day in jail. It's clear to me that if my wife and I didn't sit on top of the San Francisco DA's office the man who killed our son wouldn't have spent a minute in jail.

Then the USCIS refused to deport him. "He's only committed one crime of moral turpitude". Eight months, a lot of my time and money and I finally got him deported. What a great country we have. The victim has to pay to do the governments job.

Hate to tell you this Thom but this is what Bernie wants as well.


dladdwolf's picture
dladdwolf 7 years 9 weeks ago

Thom, I think it might be helpful to clarify what I think you were trying to say: "Mens rea" (a Latin, legal term) is not a provision of a law that they are trying to remove - mens rea is literally the state of having a "guilty mind" that is required for certain offenses, of having an intent to do something which causes some harmful or prohibited outcome.

Some acts under the law are illegal in and of themselves, as they are considered inherently wrong - such as assault or murder, for example. These fall under the (again Latin) term "malum in se", or simply wrong or evil. The examples of assault and murder are also specific-intent crimes, which means that the perpetrator had to have an intent to commit the crime - a guilty mind.

The same outcomes, albeit without the intent to commit them, may still be lesser crimes or not crimes at all.

If someone, without intent but carelessly, bumps into someone else, what otherwise would have been an assault becomes an "oops... Sorry about that" accident.

The same careless act that results in the death of another may be deemed a crime less than murder, as is often the case with accidental deaths - auto accidents, for example. No intention (or guilty mind) is required to support a negilgent homicide case, however there is a presumption (for drivers, for instance) that if someone unintentionally runs a red light (negligence) and kills or injures someone, that they either knew it was wrong or should have known that it was wrong. Thus, absent the intent to run the light and kill the person, the legal outcome is a less-severe offense.

Bottom line, I think what you may have been trying to say is that the Kochs are trying to require mens rea be established, or requiring the proving of a guilty mind in these instances.

Even absent a guilty mind, wilful indifference is yet another, slightly-lower standard - and one that I suspect Blankenship was probably tagged with if his intent to do the harm could not be established.

delster's picture
delster 7 years 9 weeks ago

Our society cannot maintan a ethical judiciary branch of our government with this kind of prejudice. Our judicial system cannot afford priviledge without encouraging a decline and erosion of civilization. By similar example we cannot rejoice and validate economic success on Wall Street at the exploitation and economic failure of citizens. These are not indications of a successful society, rather these are signs of a democracy that has failed.

Thom's Blog Is On the Move

Hello All

Thom's blog in this space and moving to a new home.

Please follow us across to hartmannreport.com - this will be the only place going forward to read Thom's blog posts and articles.

From Unequal Protection, 2nd Edition:
"Beneath the success and rise of American enterprise is an untold history that is antithetical to every value Americans hold dear. This is a seminal work, a godsend really, a clear message to every citizen about the need to reform our country, laws, and companies."
Paul Hawken, coauthor of Natural Capitalism and author of The Ecology of Commerce
From Screwed:
"I think many of us recognize that for all but the wealthiest, life in America is getting increasingly hard. Screwed explores why, showing how this is no accidental process, but rather the product of conscious political choices, choices we can change with enough courage and commitment. Like all of Thom’s great work, it helps show us the way forward."
Paul Loeb, author of Soul of a Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While
From Screwed:
"If we are going to live in a Democracy, we need to have a healthy middle class. Thom Hartmann shows us how the ‘cons’ have wronged this country, and tells us what needs to be done to reclaim what it is to be American."
Eric Utne, Founder, Utne magazine