The Ohio Democratic Party has asked state and federal regulators to investigate the company practices of one of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's biggest regional benefactors -- a coal executive who Democrats say may have strong-armed financial contributions from employees for Republican candidates and causes.
Robert E. Murray, president and CEO of the Pepper Pike, Ohio-based Murray Energy coal company, said in an interview with the Post-Gazette that memos sent over the past several years to employees urging donations to pro-coal candidates were within federal guidelines.
The accusations are laid out in a letter sent this week to the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio and the national Federal Elections Commission.
The FEC told Mr. Murray he has 15 days to respond. Mr. Murray said the Democratic Party's letter is an attempt to stifle critics of the president ahead of a critical election.
"It's timed to shut me up," Mr. Murray said Tuesday. "It's a dishonest, totally false and fabricated group of charges to embarrass Gov. Mitt Romney, my family, our company and me."
The request for an investigation could hobble Mr. Murray, who in recent months has cast himself as Appalachia's version of the deep-pocketed Koch brothers of the Koch Industries empire. He's an industry executive unafraid to supplement his business interests with money donated to Republican candidates and political action committees.
Mr. Murray's activism took on political resonance as both candidates have tried to woo the coal workers whose votes could sway Ohio, and in turn take that state's winner to the White House. President Barack Obama won the Buckeye State in 2008, with 52 percent of the vote.
The letter submitted to regulators includes allegations of "extortion, money laundering, racketeering" -- charges that Mr. Murray said caused his wife to collapse when she heard them. On Tuesday, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington watchdog group filed a complaint with the FEC against the company for similar charges.
Mr. Murray said he's talked with the Romney campaign since hearing the allegations, and that they assured him it would pass.
"They said, 'We get a lot of charges, this will go away,' " he said.
In interoffice memos, copies of which were provided to regulators by the Democratic Party, Mr. Murray circulated a roster of employees that he hadn't seen at company fundraisers, and repeatedly invited workers to attend Republican events that cost several thousands of dollars per plate.
The correspondence goes back several elections, including the 2010 midterm cycle.
"We have only a little over a month left to go in this election fight. If we do not win it, the coal industry will be eliminated and so will your job, if you want to remain in this industry," he wrote in a September 2010 memo urging employees to contribute to the company political action committee.
The allegations of coercion come after an article published in the Oct. 4 issue of the political magazine The New Republic, in which two Murray Energy managers are anonymously quoted as saying they feel pressured to oblige Mr. Murray's political wishes.
The memos submitted as evidence by Ohio Democratic Party chairman Chris Redfern appear to show Mr. Murray is unabashed in using interoffice communiques to make his political preferences known.
Politicians with pro-coal policies are called "coal friends." Employees are encouraged to opt into automatic payroll deductions that contribute to the company PAC.
Mr. Murray said Tuesday that about 19 percent of employees contribute to the PAC, and he does not see the names of those who do.
One memo attached a list of employees Mr. Murray said he didn't remember seeing at company fundraisers. "What is so difficult about asking a well-paid, salaried employee to give us three (3) hours of his/her time every two months?" he wrote.
On Tuesday, Mr. Murray said employees are not required to pay the suggested donation to attend the events, let alone attend them.
"Sometimes they come and get a free meal -- it's OK, nobody is obligated," he said.
Mr. Murray's informal campaign against the incumbent administration started over the summer, when he took the unusual step of blaming Mr. Obama for numerous rounds of layoffs at his mines. He has since hosted rallies for Mr. Romney at his Beallsville, Ohio, mine and written checks for Republican candidates totaling millions of dollars.
Mr. Murray and employees at his company have given more than $720,000 to Ohio state office candidates, and many millions more to national candidates and political action committees, according to state donation records.
The coal executive's main focus has been on Mr. Romney since the former Massachusetts governor secured his party's nomination, though Mr. Murray has donated thousands of dollars to Republican candidates across the country, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin in Missouri, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Mr. Murray became a coal-country hero over the summer, when he called out Mr. Obama in press releases announcing company layoffs, although he also conceded that competition from cheap natural gas had also contributed to slowing demand for coal.
Mr. Obama carried Ohio and was endorsed by the United Mine Workers of America in 2008, but EPA-imposed regulations and new market conditions have dampened the enthusiasm he once inspired in the industry. The UMWA hasn't endorsed either presidential candidate this year.
Mr. Murray's practices made headlines across the country earlier this year when workers complained they had been forced to attend a campus rally in Beallsville for Mr. Romney that shut down the mine.
Secret Service snipers had positioned themselves around the location, and the event logistics made it impossible to continue work, Mr. Murray said.
"I'm not going to put anybody in a coal mine when I can't rescue them," he said.
Footage from the event was later featured in a television ad produced by the candidate's campaign.
Erich Schwartzel: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1455. First Published October 10, 2012 4:00 AM