CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) – There’s a new fact-checking operation in West Virginia, but it obscures where it’s coming from: Don Blankenship’s U.S. Senate campaign.
The website www.factcheckwv.com explores issues in the Senate Republican primary that pits the former Massey Energy CEO against U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and three others. Those issues include whether President Donald Trump blamed Blankenship for the deadly 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion.
At the very bottom of the site, below all the updated items, is a small box that says "Paid for by Don Blankenship for U.S. Senate."
The campaign "didn’t want to bias it with who paid for it," Blankenship campaign spokesman Greg Thomas said Thursday. "We just want people to know the truth.
"Don likes for people to know the facts."
West Virginia Wesleyan political history professor Robert Rupp said in an email that "a candidate posting a fact check is like a fox guarding the hen house. The idea of a fact check is an unbiased assessment, not a forum for a candidate seeking office."
The fact-checking operation also is posted on Facebook , where it lists itself as a media/news company, not a political campaign.
"I think it’s a brilliant marketing tool because the website is set up to look very much like an authentic fact-checking organization," said Marybeth Beller, a political science professor at Marshall University.
Beller said in an email that the Blankenship website mimics other fact-checking sites "in such a way that, unless read very carefully, the site could easily fool readers.
"A casual reader could easily mistake this for being a neutral website. While the bottom of the website indicates that it is paid for by Don Blankenship, a reader has to read/scroll through seven articles before getting to that statement."
Blankenship served one year in prison for a misdemeanor conviction related to the explosion, which killed 29 miners in southern West Virginia. He was cleared of felony charges.
The unrepentant Blankenship is using his campaign to try to clear his name and blames the federal government, particularly the policies of former President Barack Obama.
Blankenship is hoping for an eventual showdown in November with Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, who was West Virginia’s governor at the time of the disaster.
The fact-checking operation so far addresses seven questions. The first asks "Did President Trump blame Don Blankenship for the UBB mine disaster?"
Trump has not publicly discussed Blankenship’s case, which was decided long before he took office in early 2017.
When Trump attended a roundtable discussion last week in West Virginia to address his tax cut package, seated immediately to his right and left were Jenkins and Morrisey. Blankenship was not there.
Blankenship’s website was referring to a Facebook post by Morgantown-based 35th PAC, which relayed a newspaper article last year about the U.S. Department of Justice asking the U.S. Supreme Court not to hear Blankenship’s appeal of his 2015 conviction. The high court eventually rejected Blankenship’s bid.
The PAC post read, "President Trump’s Administration agrees: Don Blankenship was rightly found GUILTY for his role in the deaths of 29 UBB coal miners. SHARE if you stand with President Trump!"
Blankenship’s website concludes the claim is false and adds that the Department of Justice is investigating Blankenship’s "unfair" conviction.
Blankenship said last week federal prosecutors withheld unspecified information that should have been provided before his trial. He issued a statement that the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which investigates allegations of misconduct involving federal prosecutors, is looking into those claims.
A call to a number listed on the Office of Professional Responsibility’s website was disconnected. In an email, Justice Department Office of Public Affairs Deputy Director Wyn Hornbuckle said the department "does not confirm, deny, or otherwise comment on the existence of investigations."
Blankenship’s conviction was for a misdemeanor charge of conspiring to willfully violate safety standards.
Four investigations found worn and broken cutting equipment created a spark that ignited accumulations of coal dust and methane gas at Upper Big Branch. Broken and clogged water sprayers then allowed what should have been a minor flare-up to become an inferno.
During the trial, prosecutors called Blankenship a bullish micromanager who meddled in the smallest details of Upper Big Branch. They said Massey’s safety programs were just a facade – never backed by more money to hire additional miners or take more time on safety tasks.