Obama’s Coal Mine Tragedy Verdict=Abuse of Power

There are two disturbing implications of President Obama’s premature condemnation of  Massey Energy for the recent tragedy at its Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, where an explosion killed 29 miners on April 5. The first is that the President appears to have a flat learning curve, as this repeats his error in the Professor Gates fiasco in Cambridge, Mass, in which Obama condemned the conduct of a Cambridge police officer without getting all the facts. The second is that for a former law professor, Obama has a rather loose grasp on the concept of Due Process.

Today the President decided who was at fault for the deaths of the miners before the official investigation was complete and without ever seeing the site of the accident or being an expert in coal mining. “This tragedy was triggered by a failure at the Upper Big Branch mine, a failure first and foremost of management, but also a failure of oversight and a failure of laws so riddled with loopholes that they allow unsafe conditions to continue,” the President said. “Owners responsible for conditions in the Upper Big Branch mine should be held accountable for decisions they made and preventive measures they failed to take.”

Unfair, unjust, reckless, irresponsible, and an outrageous abuse of Presidential power. Other than that, it was a great thing to say.

There will be law suits and possible indictments in this case. Having the President of the United States use his position, influence and power to decree who is liable, who is guilty and who is at fault before reports have been made, facts have been gathered, evidence produced and deliberations taken place is beyond irresponsible. This statement far exceeds the appropriate power and role he was elected to fill, which did not include King, Grand Inquisitor, or National Arbiter. Massey and its management have a right to Due Process, and to a fair review of the facts without a Supreme Chief Executive putting his thumb on the scales. If this outburst from the President was motivated by his determination to replace fossil fuel energy, then it is even more despicable, intentionally sabotaging justice for political leverage.

Massey issued a release that said in part:

“We fear that the President has been misinformed about our record and the mining industry in general As to our record, we note that in 2009, under this administration, (the Mine Safety and Health Administration) presented Massey Energy with three “Sentinels of Safety” Awards – the highest number of such awards ever received by one company in a single year.

“There have been violations at Upper Big Branch that the Company does not agree with and a number of those violations have been appealed. The percentage of violations appealed at UBB and Massey is similar to that for the industry as a whole.

“The enormous backlog of appeals waiting to be heard has been frustrating to all involved. We urge Congress to appropriate the funds necessary to enable this system to work better by helping government regulators to resolve the enormous backlog at MSHA. Regardless of the backlog, however, it’s important to understand that all violations must be fixed and are fixed to the satisfaction of state and federal agencies before mines are allowed to continue operating. Most violations are fixed the same day they are discovered.”

It may well turn out that President Obama is right about the reasons for the disaster, but that is irrelevant. He was spectacularly wrong, ominously wrong, in using his power to skew the justice process  before it has even begun. If both parties and the media do not condemn this bad habit of the President, there will be worse to come.

5 thoughts on “Obama’s Coal Mine Tragedy Verdict=Abuse of Power

  1. In a way it’s worse than the Cambridge cop statement: that may have been a quick instinctive reaction (which the President should control). The mine reaction was apparently considered. The Reuters dispatch that you link to said that he made the statement after consulting with the Sec. of Labor and the head of MSHA. The only justification I can imagine is that Massey’s record is so egregious that he concluded that he had to speak out now.

    I don’t have any experience with MSHA, but from my experience with OSHA I know that some employers are really bad actors. But it can take the government many years to go through all the steps and appeals to punish them.

    • E.B.: Likewise, it can (and does) take the government many years to go through all the steps and appeals to vindicate them. I believe it was William Gladstone (help me out here, Jack) who famously said that “Justice is delayed, is justice denied.”

  2. Here’s what Obama had in hand when he spoke out (from Friday’s LATimes):

    “Federal officials issued a scathing report Thursday showing a sky-high rate of violations by the West Virginia mine where a deadly explosion killed 29 miners last week, prompting President Obama to order the Justice Department to join the investigation and raising the specter of criminal charges…”

    Times article is at http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-coal-mines16-2010apr16,0,3112526.story

    • Still premature though—and not his role to comment. The company has the right to challenge findings without someone with the President’s influence declaring the issue decided. The report that there were lots of violations does not automatically mean that the violations caused the deaths. The report was an indictment. Due process means that that the company has a right to challenge it.

  3. Pingback: Bully Pulpit Ethics: Obama’s Alarming Flat Learning Curve « Ethics Alarms

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