Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Laurence Leamer
June 10, 2013 8:00 AM
Laurence Leamer, is the author of "The Price of Justice."
By Patricia Sheridan Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
New York Times best-selling author Laurence Leamer is considered an expert on the Kennedy family. He also explored the underbelly of Palm Beach society in "Madness Under the Royal Palms." His most recent book, "The Price of Justice: A True Story of Greed and Corruption," is the true story of two Reed Smith lawyers, Dave Fawcett and Bruce Stanley, as they battled Massey Energy and former CEO Don Blankenship in the wake of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster.
You worked as a coal miner for three months doing a story. What did you take away from that experience?
Working in that coal mine in West Virginia 40 years ago, I learned lots of things. First of all, I realized that these men -- and at that time they were all men -- had a choice. A lot of them didn't have a high school education, so it was either work in the mines or go up to Detroit and work on the assembly lines. If I had that choice, I would prefer to work in the mines because you are with a group of nine guys on a crew and you are mining that coal, and the foreman can't boss you around too much. You work your eight hours and you have 150-160 car loads of coal sitting there. You feel pride in what you do. I just had a great respect for them. I was also struck by the isolation. Those who hadn't served in the Vietnam War or Korea had hardly gone 15 miles from there. They knew very little beyond that world.
How invested do you become with the real-life characters you write about?
I become very invested with the people I write about. On the other hand, there is a journalist, Janet Malcolm, who wrote a famous essay in which she says what journalists do is morally indefensible. What they basically do is seduce people to get them to say this stuff, and then they go out and betray them. I never felt that was true. I mean, I try to be empathetic with people and get the truth out of them. I am sure they want to present themselves best. After a while, you learn the truth about people, and often it is not as pleasant as what you thought when you started out. But in this case, with Bruce Stanley and Dave Fawcett, I grew in admiration for them the more I learned about them. And I know a great deal about them.
Are you ever concerned about how the people you like and write about will react to how you depict them, physically or otherwise?
Yeah, I mean, the strange thing is when you are finished with a book you think, "Oh, this person is going to love it and that person is going to be angry." But often the people you think are going to be happy are the most upset. Nobody is happy about the way they are depicted. I am glad nobody has written about me because I am sure there would be something I wouldn't like. That was true with this book.
I did something I have never done before: I let Dave and Bruce read the manuscript. I am not a lawyer and I wanted to make sure it was right, and they could correct any factual errors. That was the agreement -- nothing about the interpretation but any factual error I would change [laughing]. I didn't hear from them for quite a while. I learned later that their wives were not happy with some of the stuff that was in there.
Anyway, when they eventually got back to me, they didn't have a single complaint. In fact, Dave said: "What about this? I didn't tell you about this." And they were negative things about him. He thought they should be in there if it was going to be a truthful book. The negative part of him deserved to be in there. He was amazing.
"The Price of Justice" is really a story of perseverance against overwhelming odds and money. So what was it that kept them going, really?
It was just a perfect mesh of people. ... Dave and Bruce, once they got into it, they weren't going to stop. And Reed Smith is $6 million in the hole on this thing. A lot of law firms, a long time ago, somebody would have come knocking on the door and said, "Guys you fought a good fight but enough is enough."
How does Don Blankenship's view of the world compare to the other ego-driven characters you have encountered in your career?
The thing I admire about Don Blankenship is he is the only top coal baron who lives in West Virginia. He lives in a mine superintendent's house. It's a nice house in that area, but it is nothing compared to what he could live in given all the money he -- he's still a West Virginia boy. That is the best part about him. The tragedy, as Bruce Stanley, also from West Virginia, points out so often, is all the good Blankenship could have done. But with that immense ego and the sense that he is better than everybody, and that society and capitalism works in this brutal way that only the toughest and most uncompromising succeed. That's his vision of the world. He tried to create that world and largely did so in West Virginia.
So how does a guy who grew up using an outhouse and from a working poor background not have a sense of social responsibility or compassion?
I think it's because his mother ran this little store -- you know, with Wonder Bread and milk and there was a gas pump out front. You think you are better than the people coming and buying in the store. You know who you can advance [credit] to and those you can't, the ones you can trust and the ones you can't. You question the values of a lot of these people.
That is how he grew up. He didn't belong here. He didn't belong among these poor. And he had a chip on his shoulder about the wealthy. He really despises Hugh Caperton. The Capertons are one of the big old families in West Virginia. When Don was a main candidate to be the president of Massey, the other main candidate was Hugh Caperton's brother. He was a kind of well-dressed, well-spoken, well-educated lawyer. Don beat him and that gave Don great pleasure. It irritated him that Caperton lived in this fancy house when he wasn't working and complaining constantly about how bad Massey was being to him.
While Don Blankenship lived in the modest house, it was almost a front to disguise his other life. He had two luxury cabins and took lavish trips overseas.
Yeah, he had these two luxury cabins. He built a big house in Williamson. Unbelievable. You can see it in this little town in southwestern West Virginia, way high up on the hill is this mansion. You assume [laughing] it's got to have 10 bedrooms up there. It's that big. But it only has one bedroom way at the top. That was Don's bedroom; that was it. And that was a company house that was used to entertain. Basically, Don was living off the company. You know, everything he did was paid by the company, and that house was his as well.
He is portrayed as kind of uber evil. Do you see him that way after all the research?
Ahh, I think the result is evil. I mean, look, right in his neighborhood, his company -- and they started when he was there -- started dumping coal slurry. Slurry is the refuse when you mine coal. You wash it and this is the muck that is left.
It's got all these heavy chemicals in it and particles of coal. Usually you have this in ponds. They are manmade enormous pools basically, and that is normally where it is kept. But it is cheaper to dump it down an old mine. That is what Massey did. They just dumped this stuff down old mines. It leaked into the water of people in the area. Maybe 1,000 homes, it leaked into their water. What did Don do? He had a pipeline built from the next town so he had pure water, while all his neighbors drank this water that causes cancer and all kinds of diseases.
He seems to have compartmentalized his actions.
Remember, he's an accountant and he has an accountant's mentality toward life. Everything is the bottom line. For example, the Wheeling-Pitt Steel Co. had a contract to get $30 million worth of coal every year from Massey. A long-term contract. When Don saw he could sell that coal for two or three times as much in China and other places, he just starts stiffing them and destroyed the company. He sat down and figured they are probably going to sue me. How much is that lawsuit going to cost me? If I make enough on the coal, so what? So these 2,000 guys lose their jobs. I am going to profit from this, so let's do it.
Larry, you know that's not just Don Blankenship. That is corporations across the globe. Not all, but enough.
That is what's happening. I think there used to be in the American corporate system a reticence on some of these things. Yes, you wanted to make a profit, but there was also concern for your workers. That world is gone now. It's a brutal, brutal world out there. I think sooner or later, with the affluence we have in America, people are going to ask themselves, "Why are we doing this? Why are we doing this to ourselves?"
There has to be a backlash to this unbridled greed, which is really what you are writing about.
Capitalism is the best way for people to advance economically, no question. But it needs to be tempered. It needs to be controlled. This is like 19th-century capitalism.
Do you think Don Blankenship will end up doing prison time?
Yes, I think he is going to be indicted. I think it is going to happen soon. People are going to be surprised at the severity of the indictment.
Were you ever afraid of him?
I don't think he's dangerous as much as the men around him [are]. When I started this book, he was the head of Massey. I can see some out-of-control Massey miner thinking this outsider is coming down here. He wants to destroy Don, my boss. He wants to destroy Massey, and I'm going to get him. That I can see happening. Not directly from Don, that is not him.