The Times West Virginian

April 6, 2008

Maynard, supporters on offensive

As primary for state nears

By Lawrence Messina

CHARLESTON — The chief political consultant for Massey Energy chief Don Blankenship has signed up to aid the re-election bid of Supreme Court Chief Justice Elliott “Spike” Maynard, according to an e-mail provided to The Associated Press.

The e-mail addressed from Greg Thomas has him recruiting Democrats for an independent get-out-the-vote effort at the behest of unnamed business interests. With two seats up on the court this year, Maynard is one of four Democrats and the sole incumbent in that party’s May 13 primary.

The e-mail does not suggest any involvement by Blankenship, who declined comment last week. But it underscores a rallying by Maynard’s supporters as fallout continues from the vacation photos showing Maynard in Monaco with Blankenship, Massey’s president, chairman and chief executive officer.

Separately, Maynard’s campaign has sought to counter the damage wrought by the photos. With Massey appeals pending or headed to the Supreme Court at the time of the July 2006 Riviera rendezvous, the photos elicited appearance-of-impropriety concerns from an array of legal ethics experts. Maynard has since recused himself from at least three Massey-related cases, while denying any wrongdoing, but the photos continue to attract national press attention.

ABC News plans to broadcast a report focusing on Blankenship’s relationship with Maynard and the court Monday, on both “World News With Charles Gibson” and “Nightline.” The report itself made headlines after Blankenship’s run-in with an ABC reporter outside one of Massey’s Kentucky offices last week.

ABC News alleges Blankenship told the reporter, “If you’re going to start taking pictures of me, you’re liable to get shot,” before grabbing his camera, breaking off its microphone and tearing the reporter’s shirt collar. Blankenship’s lawyers have cast the reporter as the aggressor, telling ABC that the coal executive was “approached unannounced by an intruder on private property.”

A Republican, Thomas is perhaps best known from a series of recent political campaigns bankrolled by Blankenship.

Blankenship spent an estimated $3.5 million to help Republican Brent Benjamin defeat a Democratic incumbent in 2004’s Supreme Court race. Less successful was the 2006 effort coordinated by Thomas to sweep Democrats from the House of Delegates.

Blankenship poured more than $2.7 million into that campaign, only to see the Republicans lose four seats in the chamber to the majority party.

Thomas did not respond to numerous requests for comment last week. Blankenship has previously said that he may or may not get involved in any campaigns this year. Thomas has represented Blankenship in the press as recently as February, and was previously his personal lobbyist, but also maintains an independent consulting firm.

While it has no role in Thomas’ efforts, West Virginia’s Chamber of Commerce is doing what it can to advocate Maynard’s re-election, President Steve Roberts said. Roberts said his group and others in the “business and economic world” view Maynard as experienced, independent-minded and fair.

“The chamber has a long-standing record of supporting Chief Justice Maynard,” Roberts said.

Roberts also predicted that the Maynard campaign’s initial finance report, which should be posted this week, will reflect a wide range of donors and include both plaintiffs’ and defense lawyers.

Maynard, meanwhile, has gone on the offensive. He leveled a series of allegations against challenger Bob Bastress during an interview of the candidates by the Charleston Daily Mail’s editorial board. A West Virginia University law professor, Bastress has seized on the Monaco photos and surrounding questions as a campaign issue.

Bastress was on hand to deny accusations from Maynard that he was campaigning with law school resources, was shirking his duties there and stood to benefit from legislation sponsored by his lawmaker-wife, the newspaper reported.

Maynard also contends that he has voted against the Richmond, Va.-based Massey more often than voting in its favor, offering a list of 16 cases.

The Associated Press earlier identified eight published opinions by the Supreme Court in which Maynard sided with Massey, dissenting from the majority’s ruling in half of them. Maynard’s list is shy four of those cases, including the November decision vacating a $76 million judgment won against the coal producer by Harman Mining.

The Monaco photos were filed in that case, fueling a successful bid for Maynard’s recusal. The high court erased the November decision, reheard arguments and then again overturned the judgment last week without the chief justice.

Maynard also disagrees that a fifth case cited by AP, a pretrial ruling requested in pending class-action flood lawsuits, benefited Massey. The 2004 ruling allowed the lawsuits to proceed, but lawyers for Massey and other defendants had hailed it for sharply curtailing their exposure to liability.

Maynard wrote the opinion in that case, after rejecting a recusal request that invoked his friendship with Blankenship.

Ten of the cases from Maynard’s list do not reflect opinions, but rather petitions for appeal or pretrial writs. Those include the request for unemployment benefits from a former personal maid assigned to Blankenship. But a lawyer for her ex-employer, Mate Creek Security Inc., told the Supreme Court last week that the company is not affiliated with Massey and neither the coal producer nor Blankenship are parties in the case.

Another two of those petitions are in cases with pending appeals as yet unresolved by the court. But in four others, Maynard argues he let stand millions in damages against Massey subsidiaries by voting with the majority to refuse their petitions.

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Lawrence Messina covers the statehouse for The Associated Press.