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.

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