It’s criminal investigation week! Not only is the DOJ investigating Goldman Sachs, but the FBI has launched a bribery investigation into Massey Energy, the owner of the Upper Big Branch Mine and a company that regularly condones what amounts to serial murder by negligence.
NPR News has learned that the Mine Safety and Health Administration is one subject of a federal criminal investigation surrounding the explosion of the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia three weeks ago — a disaster that killed 29 miners. The probe also looks at Massey Energy, the owner of the mine.
Sources familiar with the investigation say the FBI is looking into possible bribery of officials of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that inspects and regulates mining. The sources say FBI agents are also exploring potential criminal negligence on the part of Massey Energy, the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine.
By way of background, Massey Energy appeals two thirds of its numerous safety citations, more than any other coal company. And they are notoriously hostile and evasive to federal inspectors. Given their clear intent to skirt federal oversight in any way possible, the fact that the FBI is investigating them for possibly bribing federal oversight agencies fits in well with Massey’s overall corporate strategy. (The FBI is also investigating Massey for negligence, something that’s long overdue.)
Right now, there are no more details available on the FBI’s investigation, so it’s unclear exactly how the bribery is alleged to have occurred. However, in researching this piece, a story caught my eye:
Amid all the sound and fury over the huge backlog of coal industry appeals that the Obama administration says have tied MSHA’s hands in terms of tougher enforcement actions, one fascinating bit of information hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves.
As many things about mine safety are, this tidbit was originally reported by Ellen Smith from Mine Safety and Health News, in this instance back in September 2009 (around the time MSHA was last considering whether to put Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine on the road to tougher enforcement for having a “pattern of violations”).
Odd as it may sound, MSHA actually made a deal back in September 2006 to make it easier for Massey Energy lawyers to file even more appeals of enforcement actions.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this tidbit has nothing to do with the investigation, though it seems highly unethical to treat one company differently from others in the courts. Still, it’s interesting nonetheless. Regulators like the SEC have only very recently begun shedding their subservience to the industry’s the are supposed to regulate. Mine regulators were clearly “captured” under the Bush administration by Massey Energy and other big coal companies. Perhaps that capture involved bribes.
Either way, it’s time for the agency to assert itself again, and it’s time for crooks like Massey Energy and CEO Don Blankenship to face criminal charges.