The DC corporate law firm Crowell & Moring has been involved in some nasty stuff over the years. For example, the Tobacco Archives contain numerous “Tort Reform Project” budgets from tobacco companies, showing fees to Crowell & Moring (among other firms), whose counsel at the time was Victor Schwartz, General Counsel of the American Tort Reform Association. (We occasionally cover Victor, like here).
However, I have to say that until we got word of two earlier decisions that had cleared members of Crowell & Moring of ethics violations, reported in yesterday’s “The BLT: The Blog of the Legal Times,” we were unaware of this: In 2011, Crowell’s D.C.–based partners Clifford Zatz, William Anderson and Kirsten Nathanson, and counsel Monica Welt, wrote a memo for their mining industry clients “that raised the specter of inbreeding in the Appalachian region.” This document understandably caused enormous outcries and protests among many people, including Appalachia native and assistant professor at the Charlotte School of Law Jason Huber, who responded by filing an ethics complaint against the four. (You can find the complaint here as well as the memo, which the firm pulled from its website around the time it apologized for writing it.)
Two decisions that just recently came to light—one issued in December and another handed down a year ago—squelched a 58-page complaint filed against the four Crowell lawyers with the Office of Bar Counsel in Washington after they penned a controversial mining industry-related memo in 2011 that raised the specter of inbreeding in the Appalachian region.
The Crowell attorneys wrote the memo “in response to an academic study exploring possible links between mountaintop coal mining and birth defects in the Appalachian region.” Huber filed the complaint alleging (unsuccessfully), that “the Crowell lawyers ‘ran afoul of their ethical and moral obligations as attorneys in soliciting business from the mining industry’ through their criticism of the birth defects study [and that the Crowell memo] contained ‘material misrepresentations about the Appalachian people,’ which he feels should lead to some professional sanctions against the lawyers involved.”
Well, these lawyers may be off the hook, but the news isn’t all good for the mining industry, and especially for former Massey Energy head Don Blankenship, which ran the Upper Big Branch mine when an explosion killed 29 Massey miners. (See some of our earlier coverage here). Last week, while pleading guilty to two counts of conspiracy, former White Buck Coal Co. president David Hughart implicated Blankenship “in what appears to be a widespread corporate practice of warning coal miners about surprise inspections.” Specifically,
Hughart, 54, was accused of working with others to ensure miners at White Buck and other Massey subsidiaries got advance warning about federal inspections between 2000 and March 2010. Such warnings let miners and managers conceal potentially deadly conditions that could lead to a shutdown in production.…
Though he was not mentioned by name in court, Blankenship was CEO at the time. And outside the courtroom, Karen Hughart confirmed that’s who her husband meant.
“Don called the office and at home,” she said, adding that her husband has been threatened several times in his career. “Anyone that did not comply was threatened. We lived under fear.”
Hughart is the highest-ranking Massey employee involved in a criminal case since the investigation began. He faces up to six years in prison and a $350,000 fine when sentenced June 25. A former Upper Big Branch superintendent was recently sentenced to 21 months in prison after pleading guilty to charges he defrauded the government through his actions at the mine.
Blankenship retired about eight months after the nation’s worst coal mining disaster in four decades, and several victims’ relatives have demanded he be prosecuted.
Seems like there are more than enough coal mining industry shenanigans to keep Crowell & Moring plenty busy!