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Blankenship To Begin Serving Time As Conspiracy Case Is Appealed

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And now to a major turn in a story of a disaster in a coal mine that riveted the country back in 2010. The explosion in the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia left 29 miners dead. Today, the then-CEO of the company that owned the mine reports to federal prison to serve a maximum sentence of one year. West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Ashton Marra reports.

ASHTON MARRA, BYLINE: Tensions were high as former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship walked out of his sentencing hearing on April 6, just one day after the six-year anniversary of the mine disaster. Blankenship was met by dozens of family members of dead miners who pelted him with harsh words.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT ATKINS: I've got to go to the grave to see my kid's casket.

MARRA: When asked how he felt about the hostility, Blankenship said...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DON BLANKENSHIP: ...I feel badly for them.

MARRA: I feel badly for them, badly for the family members who lost their loved ones. The U.S. attorney's office says Blankenship's conviction is the first time the head of a major corporation has faced jail time in connection to a workplace safety accident. His charge was conspiring to violate mine safety laws, not the deaths of the miners.

The accident sparked the investigation into Blankenship's practices at Massey. The micromanager liked to receive coal production updates every half-hour and gave the final authority on spending even small amounts of money. Bill Taylor is Blankenship's lead attorney.

BILL TAYLOR: The evidence was insufficient to convict him of a conspiracy.

MARRA: Taylor filed an appeal. But yesterday, the appellate court did nothing to stop Blankenship from beginning his prison term before judges decide whether to throw out the conviction.

TAYLOR: It really is not fair to have him begin to serve his sentence when he could serve the entire sentence before the Court of Appeals even reaches the question of whether or not he was legally convicted.

MARRA: Taylor confirmed Blankenship will report to a federal prison in California, although declined to say which one. It's likely the former CEO will go to Taft Correctional Institution outside Bakersfield. The privately-operated facility is the home to many convicted white-collar criminals, criminals like Justin Paperny.

JUSTIN PAPERNY: Taft is a gem in the prison system.

MARRA: Paperny served 18 months at Taft, beginning in 2008, after pleading guilty to fraud charges. The former high-paid stockbroker wrote a book about his time behind bars and now works as a consultant to prepare criminals for their federal sentences. Paperny says Taft is not a full-time work camp, like many U.S. prisons. Inmates are assigned small jobs with daily tasks that take just a few hours to complete.

PAPERNY: It provides maximum time for introspection, to think and to prepare for what it is you'd like to do upon release.

MARRA: For Paperny, who was in his early 30s when he was convicted, the Taft prison allowed him to think about a new career. For the 66-year-old Blankenship, that likely won't be his aim. Still, his attorney, Bill Taylor, says they hope the appeal will be successful.

TAYLOR: In the wake of a terrible tragedy in an industry - an industry which is inherently dangerous, it is not hard to get people to believe that the people in charge of the company are criminals.

MARRA: Taylor maintains Blankenship is not a criminal, just a former CEO serving time because he was concerned with his company's bottom line. For NPR News, I'm Ashton Marra in Charleston, W. Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.