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Blankenship pleads Fifth in UBB disaster inquiry

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Retiring Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has decided to invoke his Fifth Amendment right to not answer questions about the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, officials confirmed Friday.

Blankenship had been scheduled to appear Tuesday for a closed-door interview with a team of state, federal and independent investigators who are looking into the April 5 explosion that killed 29 miners in the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in more than 40 years.

Late Friday, state officials received a three-paragraph letter from Blankenship's lawyer, William W. Taylor III, notifying the state that the Massey chief executive would not attend the interview session.

"Upon our advice, Mr. Blankenship will decline to appear on the basis of his constitutional rights, including his privilege under the Fifth Amendment," Taylor wrote.

The move comes a week after last Friday's announcement by Massey's board of directors that Blankenship would retire from his position with the company, effective Dec. 31.

Shane Harvey, general counsel for Massey, would not comment on Blankenship's move and referred questions to Taylor, who also would not comment, other than to confirm that he represented Blankenship.

At the request of special investigator Davitt McAteer, Blankenship had been subpoenaed to testify and, originally, his lawyers had told state investigators that he planned to appear. Other high-ranking officials and top mine managers from Massey and subsidiary Performance Coal previously have invoked their Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer government investigators' questions.

Investigators have been preparing for several weeks to interview Blankenship, who has led a high-profile Massey public relations campaign to point fingers at U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration policies the company says made the Upper Big Branch Mine less safe.

"We have put a tremendous amount of hours into preparing to question this guy," said C.A. Phillips, acting director of the state mine safety office. "We had hoped that we could get some of these questions answered."

Technically, Blankenship was subpoenaed only by the mine safety office. Under federal law, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration can subpoena witnesses only for public hearings, not closed-door interviews. So the state has been issuing subpoenas, and MSHA officials -- along with the McAteer team appointed by former Gov. Joe Manchin -- have been sitting in on and asking questions during those interviews.

In his letter to the state, Blankenship's lawyer noted that officials from MSHA and McAteer's team were expected to attend Blankenship's interview.

Other Massey officials, including vice president for safety Elizabeth Chamberlin, complained when they refused to testify that MSHA is using the investigation to "divert attention and blame from itself and onto others" and that McAteer's team has "bullied and abused" some witnesses.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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