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Author: W.Va. Supreme Court 'appalling,' chief justice 'Blankenship's creature'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Author Laurence Leamer called Brent Benjamin, chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court, "Blankenship's creature" and said justices on the Supreme Court are "appalling" at a Saturday reading to promote his new book, "The Price of Justice: A True story of Greed and Corruption."

Leamer told a crowd of about 60 people at Taylor Books in downtown Charleston that he knows his new book is controversial, particularly in its harsh critique of justices on the Supreme Court.

In August 2002, a Boone County jury ordered Massey Energy Co. and its president, Don Blankenship, to pay $50 million in damages to Hugh Caperton and his company, Harman Mining, which operated near Grundy, Va. In 1997, Blankenship had cut off a long-term contract Harman had signed with Wellmore Coal after Massey bought Wellmore's parent company.

The Supreme Court, though, has voted three times to reject that $50 million verdict.

"I think the judges of the West Virginia Supreme Court are appalling." Leamer said on Saturday.

"Blankenship said nothing made him so mad," Leamer said of that Boone County verdict. Today, it would be worth more than $75 million, with interest.

In 2004, Blankenship spent more than $3 million of his own money to defeat incumbent Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw, eliminating a probable vote against Massey when the Caperton case reached the Supreme Court.

During his talk at Taylor Books, Leamer said a critical issue used to attack McGraw was an April 2004 Supreme Court decision releasing Tony Arbaugh from prison.

Arbaugh was convicted of molesting his half-brother and sentenced to 15 to 35 years in prison in 1997. Arbaugh could barely read and write and was himself a victim of sexual molestation.

The Supreme Court's 2004 decision released Arbaugh from jail, placing him in a rehabilitation program.

"The case allowed Blankenship to develop one of the most vicious advertising campaigns in any election in America," Leamer said.

Those ads, on billboards and television sets around the state, accused McGraw of being friendly to child molesters.

Brent Benjamin, a relatively unknown Charleston lawyer, ran for the Supreme Court as a Republican and beat McGraw.

The $3 million that Blankenship spent on the race was more than two-thirds of all the total money raised in the election.

"Benjamin was elected," Leamer said, "as Blankenship's creature."

Leamer also talked about the release of photographs in January 2008, when the Caperton case was still before the Supreme Court, which showed Justice Elliot "Spike" Maynard on vacation in Southern France with Blankenship and both of their girlfriends.

Maynard, who voted against Caperton in two Supreme Court rulings, was defeated in the 2008 Democratic primary election.

The court issued a third opinion in the Caperton case in November 2009.

"This corrupt court voted to overturn the Boone County decision," Leamer said. "Only one justice, Margaret Workman, dissented. She knew the decision was also hurting union miners, who lost their jobs and who lost their retirement."

The lawsuit against Massey, now owned by Alpha Natural Resources, is now before a circuit court in Buchanan County, in Southwestern Virginia, where Harman Mining was located.

The Virginia Supreme Court ordered the lower court to hold a trial in the case.

Leamer said it was another book that initially brought him to West Virginia.

"Forty years ago, I read Harry Caudill's 'Night Comes to the Cumberlands.' It made me want to come down here," Leamer said.

Published in 1964, Caudill's book focuses on poverty, economic inequality, coal mining and environmental problems in Central Appalachia, particularly in Eastern Kentucky.

"Shortly after I read the book, I came down here for several months. I worked as a coal miner in Eccles No. 6, a mine outside Beckley," Leamer said.

Leamer has now published 14 books, including three about the Kennedy family, and others about Nancy and Ronald Reagan, Johnny Carson and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"The Price of Justice," his first book about coal mining, was published earlier this month.

"Seventeen top publishers rejected the book, saying it wouldn't sell because it was just about the coal industry and West Virginia," Leamer said. "I was lucky that Times Books was willing to give me a small advance to work on it."

Bruce Stanley, a Pittsburgh lawyer and a central figure in Leamer's book, also spoke at Taylor Books about his work on the ongoing case.

Born in Mingo County, Stanley has represented Caperton in his lawsuits against Massey.

"Don is from Mingo County, just like me," Stanley joked. "I believe that, as a society, we crave justice. But without all of us working for it, it will never happen.

"West Virginia is at a turning point today. Coal is waning. Natural gas production may be increasing," Stanley said. "It is a shame that this book ever had to be written."

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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