Every Friday since a blast at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia killed 29 miners, graduate students at the University of Texas have been treated to an insider briefing. The name of their course is Managing Crises, and their professor, Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, is dealing with a big one.
In addition to being a former National Security Agency chief, a one-time defense secretary nominee, a deputy director of the CIA, a former chairman of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank and a successful venture capitalist, Inman is the longest-serving member of the board of directors of Massey Energy Co., which owns the Upper Big Branch mine. Inman, the Centennial Chair in National Policy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT, where he has twice served as interim dean, talked with The Texas Tribune about the attention focused on his company and himself in light of the recent tragedy.
Massey, which faced steep criminal penalties after a fatal fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in 2006, has drawn significant scrutiny for the high number of violations cited by the Mine Safety and Health Administration — the Upper Big Branch mine had 19 times the national rate, according to a recent MSHA report. Despite this, Inman has rebutted repeated calls for the removal of controversial CEO Don Blankenship. In fact, Inman has publicly backed him.
Inman calls Blankenship “the best coal miner in West Virginia” and credits him for growing the company “pretty spectacularly.” He notes, however, that Blankenship is “tone deaf politically.” Blankenship famously funded a successful effort to elect a West Virginia judge who later failed to recuse himself in a case involving Massey — sparking a national debate about the ethics of elected judges. As Inman sees it, much of the backlash against Blankenship stems from the political ripple effect of that incident (the judge who lost his seat amid the scandal, Elliott "Spike" Maynard, is running to unseat one of Massey's most vocal critics, Democratic U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall) and from Blankenship’s longstanding feud with the unions that began back in the mid-'80s:
Determining the cause of the explosion will take weeks, and in the meantime, Blankenship has the board’s — and Inman’s — full support. “This I learned through my military career: As angry as you may be with somebody, you do not shake the structure in the middle of a crisis,” Inman says. “You work your way through the crisis, and then you hold accountability and responsibility. Those words are not carelessly chosen.”
That support could falter depending on the findings of the multiple investigations — including an independent review commissioned by Massey — into the cause of the blast, Inman told the Tribune. “I will set the example,” Inman says. “That’s what I was trained to do in my first career. If there is clear culpability — the board should have known and did not act — then I will resign from the board. Whether the board elects to retain Don or whether he follows my lead, we’ll wait to see where the chips fall.”
At this point, Inman does not believe that there is culpability on the part of Massey management. Here he cautiously discusses his thoughts on the still-unknown cause of the blast, which early speculators have attributed to a mix of methane and coal dust:
Inman doesn’t know for certain, but he suspects that if a comprehensive review of all citations handed out by MSHA were made available, it would reveal that non-union mines collect more violations than union mines — not because of a discrepancy in safety practices but because they are targeted by pro-union forces. The notion that a mine would have no violations, Inman explains, is unrealistic:
Inman insists that there is no correlation between the total number of violations a mine incurs and its overall safety. He compares the rise in penalties for safety violations to an old Texas speed trap:
There has been much chatter circulating in the last month that Inman has shrugged off. He does not feel the need to heed the calls to dump Blankenship, which he says come from organizations that collectively own “less than 2 percent” of Massey’s stock. The oft-cited $20 million fine Massey recently paid to the Environmental Protection Agency, the largest of its kind in industry history, was a result of a shareholder decision to be less confrontational, focus efforts away from litigation and settle — though, Inman says, had they hashed it out all the way, they would have paid no more than $3 million. Inman is "very comfortable" that Massey is not in contempt of the court for failing to fulfill the safety monitoring and reporting requirements of a 2007 settlement, as alleged in a recent lawsuit. A New York Times article citing an inadequately sealed shaft did alarm him, he says, but he called the CEO and found it to be “just flat wrong.” And Inman doesn’t even want to speculate about the motivations of the anonymous foreman quoted in the article saying there is pressure not to speak out about unsafe conditions, because anyone who has been with Massey long enough to be a foreman should know about the company's anonymous tip line.
Meanwhile, Inman says, the company has been restrained in its ability to speak out. “I’ve always told my class, no matter what kind of crisis, the spokesperson you have is absolutely critical for the outcome," he says. "I’ve had to revise that slightly. For a public company, you cannot speculate. The SEC will hammer you for trying to manipulate the stock, and you get lawsuits for manipulating the stock.” Massey moved its earnings report up two weeks to last Thursday, freeing itself up to address the issue more publicly. On Monday the company held a press conference in which it announced that it was setting aside funds for the health care and education of the victims’ families. But, in general, he believes the Massey perspective has been left out of the media coverage:
“The thing that has made me angriest,” Inman says, “is the allegation that we’ve traded safety for profits.” Inman, who says Massey invests heavily in mine safety, sees a political tilt to the charge. “Who was the first person who made that allegation?” he asks. “It was a plaintiff’s lawyer.” From there, Inman traces the meme to AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka. The next one to pick it up, he says, was Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers. “And who was the next one? The president of the United States.”
Inman recently told a reporter that the whole affair was “enough to make a Tea Partier" out of him. Now he’s walking that back. “That was my attempt to be funny,” he says, observing that, unlike himself, most of the Tea Party members he sees are “to the right of Atilla the Hun.”
While the Austin Tea Party isn’t likely to see him at its next meeting, Inman has joined forces with a different Austin-based group. Massey has retained Austin-based Public Strategies, a public affairs consulting firm that specializes in crisis management, to help the company through this period.
Even if the Massey board is not found culpable, Inman will be stepping down as a director in the next year. Whatever the outcome of the investigation, he does not expect his teaching position to be affected.
“In the worst case — I’ll be 80 next year — if the idea is that I should stop teaching because I’m a bad example to the students, then I’ll miss teaching,” he says. “I find it hard to believe that’s a valid outcome anywhere along the way. Let’s just say, all false modesty aside, I have a long waiting list for my classes.”