The Coast Guard helicopter crash hearings last week brought some high profile courtroom drama to Juneau. The three days of testimony focused on whether or not Lt. Lance Leone should be charged with negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and destruction of a government helicopter. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the Department of Justice decided not to pursue corporate criminal charges in the Upper Big Branch mining disaster that killed 29 men in West Virginia. It seems our government believes corporations are people until it comes to accountability for willful criminal negligence.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m an employee in the Coast Guard’s Civil Engineering Unit Juneau. I’ve worked on projects for Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo and Cmdr. Doug Cameron, both of whom have responsibilities for the decisions in this case. I’ve been a passenger on numerous helicopter flights that originated at Air Station Sitka. And although I’ve never met Leone, after reading Friday’s Empire story I realized I knew his mother when we were high school friends more than 35 years ago.
My objective, though, isn’t to analyze the evidence presented during the Coast Guard hearing and render an armchair recommendation. I want to compare the cases as a way to highlight the disturbing judicial advantages our democracy gives to corporations. Simply put, Leone can’t use money to buy his freedom from prosecution. Corporations, it seems, are allowed to use their vast financial resources to negotiate their way to criminal immunity. And considering the Supreme Court ruling two years ago in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, our free speech rights apply to corporate campaign contributions that can reward the political actors who protect them.
The investigation of both accidents took months of piecing together eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence. In Lt. Leone’s case, the relevant facts were presented to a military judge advocate by Coast Guard prosecutors and rebutted by Leone’s defense attorney. With the exception of the cockpit conversations recorded during the flight, it was all done under the watchful eyes of the news media. In the case of the West Virginia coal mining disaster, the legal maneuvering in has been anything but transparent.
In a 972-page report by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), government investigators claim that Massey Energy, the mine owner, had “enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety, and broke the law as they endangered the lives of their miners.” The most egregious example of this is the two sets of books Massey kept for documenting known hazards at the mine. One was open to review by miners and MSHA inspectors. The second set was not. Investigators wrote in the overview of their findings that “hazards described in the hidden “second set of books” were consistent with conditions that existed at the time of the explosion” that killed the miners.
Where this case becomes convoluted is that six months ago Massey Energy was acquired by Alpha Natural Resources Inc. for $8.5 billion. The merger occurred despite a pending lawsuit against the corporation that had been filed by a group of its shareholders. The plaintiffs claimed that by knowingly failing to ensure safety of the mine, the officers and directors had cost shareholders hundreds of millions of dollars. Indeed, during the merger negotiations, Massey actually requested that Alpha indemnify them from claims that included “willful acts of misconduct.”
The court rejected the shareholder’s second suit to stop Alpha’s takeover of the company. So the corporation won’t have to answer to them unless the Alpha board of directors agrees to pursue the suit on their behalf. That’s hasn’t happened. And despite the conclusions by Department of Justice investigators, the merger also shielded Massey from charges of corporate criminal conduct.
In a Juneau courtroom, with dignity and the support of the families who lost loved ones in his accident, Leone faced the possibility of being sentenced to prison. In West Virginia, former Massey executives weren’t even present when U.S. Attorney R. Booth Goodwin announced the settlement while explaining that a corporation “is not a life, it’s not a being, it can’t go to jail.” And they’re not deserving of the constitutional protections written for we the people.
• Moniak is a Juneau resident.