price-of-justiceThe Price of Justice: A True Story of Greed and Corruption
Laurence Leamer (Nepal 1964–66)
Times Books
412 Pages
$30.00 (hardcover); $14.99 (Kindle)
May 2013

Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000–02, Madagascar 2002–03)

COAL HAS LONG BEEN A METAPHOR in our culture for the dark seed inside the greedy soul; the color of it, its hardness, all that compressed, combustible power. The pits where it’s dug are among our most basic conceptions of hell. “It’s dark as a dungeon,” Johnny Cash sings in his song of the same name, “damp as the dew/danger is double/pleasures are few/It’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mine.”

Larry Leamer in his new book, The Price of Justice: A True Story of Greed and Corruption, discovers something even darker; the heart of a West Virginia coal executive whose lust for union busting, corporate expansion and profit leads to the deaths of scores of miners, poisoning of vast swaths of his home state, hundreds thrown out of work, thousands diseased, smaller companies bankrupted, and ultimately the very nature of American jurisprudence mocked, abused and corrupted.

If this sounds like a robber baron tale from the dirty days of the Gilded Age, one might be surprised by Leamer’s dateline: The Price of Justice begins in West Virginia in 1998 and follows a court case, Caperton vs. Massey, all the way to the US Supreme Court and today.

Leamer is a master of meticulous non-fiction storytelling; he’s at the height of his powers in this book, into his fifth decade as one of our premier book-length journalists. His antagonist is Don Blankenship former head of Massey Energy, sixth largest coal producer in the US. Under Blankenship, Massey ignored basic mine and environmental safety standards in the name of an ever fatter bottom line and destroyed smaller competition through fraud.

“I’ve tried to understand him,” a miner’s widow says in Leamer’s telling after she takes a wrongful death payment from Blankenship’s company. “He lost his humanity. Once he got a taste for that power, nothing was going to stop him from going higher and higher. If I could give the settlement back and put him in jail, I would.”

Blankenship is famous on YouTube for attacking an ABC producer who attempted to interview him; he’s also notorious for having spent $3 million to oust an unfriendly judge from the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, installing instead a conservative who would rule in his favor in the $75 million Caperton vs. Massey.

The case, now ongoing in Virginia, served as the basis for John Grisham’s The Appeal. It’s such a heinous travesty of justice that even Grisham has said that Leamer’s carefully illustrated anatomy of Blankenship’s evil is the book he wished he’d written. A page turner that distills tort law and Supreme Court legalese into a gripping story, The Price of Justice counts among its many successes its ability to lay bare the extent of Blankenship’s cynical wrong doing.

Of the thuggish Blankenship, Leamer writes:

Blankenship’s mother had an affair while her husband was in the army. When he returned and discovered that she had borne a child who was not his, he wanted nothing to do with either of them. Blankenship had the curse of a bastard son. In 1980, he became the office manager at Rawl Sales, a subsidiary of the A. T. Massey Coal Company. He believed that you could never give in. You could never compromise. You could never settle. You stood head to head with your foes, and sooner or later they flinched and walked away. That was what Blankenship did at Massey every day.

As his narrative vehicle, Leamer takes Caperton vs. Massey from the beginning, introducing the aristocratic Hugh Caperton, owner of a struggling coal mining operation, who cares deeply about his miners. Blankenship covets Caperton’s coal and is jealous of his blueblood roots; he ignores the terms of a contract to humiliate and starve his smaller rival into bankruptcy. Broke, Caperton finds a fearless Pittsburgh “odd couple” of lawyers, David Fawcett and Bruce Stanley, willing to sue “King Coal” on contingency because it’s the right thing to do. Leamer chronicles the lawyers’ decade-long campaign against Blankenship, and Blankenship’s court-stacking tactics against them.

The battle against Blankenship leads to divorces, broken health, ruined careers and crushed spirits. Leamer writes of one of the lawyers:

When Stanley came home late, as he usually did, his wife and his daughters were almost always already there. They were a close family, and most nights, Stanley talked of Blankenship and Massey and the continuing struggle. His family worried that this obsession might cause a stroke or a heart attack. He acted as if he were the only person who could stop Blankenship. His wife and daughters were proud of Stanley and his struggle, but after all these years and all this work, had he even begun to bring Blankenship down? What had Stanley truly achieved, and who was paying the price?

Blankenship’s appetite for money, power and coal is insatiable, and Caperton’s two lawyers are equally obsessed with defeating him. There are twists and turns in this book that put any legal thriller to shame; photos of Blankenship cavorting with a West Virginia judge and their much younger girlfriends on the French Riviera leads to a turning point that takes the case to the US Supreme Court. At the highest American court-just as had happened in West Virginia-conservative Justices Scalia and Roberts signal they’ll vote in the coal baron’s favor even before the case has been fully heard.

Will the Caperton lawyers convince Justice Kennedy to cast his swing vote in their favor? Or will the Supreme Court allow Blankenship’s purchasing of the West Virginia legal system to become the new American standard?

Leamer has taken on one of the most cynical cases of corporate malfeasance from the George W. Bush era-which was riddled with them-and humanized it. As beautiful side note to his central story, he chronicles the struggles of dozens of poor West Virginians trampled by “King Coal,” almost as if he-like the Caperton lawyers-simply refuses to let Blankenship win. 

Laurence Leamer  is the best-selling author of fourteen books, including The Kennedy Women and Madness Under the Royal Palms. Leamer is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Playboy, and Newsweek. He lives in Washington, D.C., and Palm Beach, Florida.

Reviewer Tony D’Souza’s has contributed to the New Yorker, Playboy, Esquire, Outside, Granta and Mother Jones. His latest novel, Mule, was optioned by Warner Bros.