Author Laurence Leamer: From Palm Beach Decadence to Coal Baron Crime
Best known locally for his controversial bestseller Madness Under the Royal Palms, about Palm Beach society's lives of gilded desperation, author Laurence Leamer is back with another compelling read. This one covers the story of coal royalty, criminal greed, and death deep in the earth.
Making an appearance at Coral Gables' Books & Books tomorrow, the part-time Palm Beach resident will discuss and sign copies of The Price of Justice. Newly in print, it tells the tale of two attorneys' 15-year slog through a swamp of corruption to hold coal baron Don Blankenship accountable for miner fatalities, environmental destruction, and predatory business practices.
A freelance writer for more than four decades, Leamer has long been drawn to tales of the coal fields. In the early '70s, for an article in Harper's, he arranged with the UMW and the Westmoreland Coal Company to work the hoot-owl shift in a West Virginia mine.
"I've always respected the miners and what they did for us," he tells New Times. "Over a hundred thousand of them have died in their work, more deaths than we suffered in Vietnam and Korea. We've depended on coal. Now that's all ending."
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The new book began when Leamer read of a U.S. Supreme Court case in which third-generation coal operator Hugh Caperton alleged Blankenship bought his way out of a $50 million verdict for defrauding and bankrupting Caperton's coal company. That award was overturned by a one-vote margin of the West Virginia Supreme Court, the one vote coming from a justice whose election campaign Blankenship bankrolled. It was typical of the way Blankenship and other coal kingpins lorded over their lessers.
Leamer contacted Caperton's attorneys David Fawcett and Bruce Stanley, colleagues at the law firm Reed Smith, and dug in to research their epic series of battles with Blankenship. In the Caperton dispute, the Supreme Court ordered a rehearing, which established a new principle for legal fairness. The duo lost again in West Virginia but is now fighting the dispute in Virginia state court.
On other fronts, Stanley won settlements for the families of miners who died in two Blankenship mine disasters, and he continues to pursue federal regulators for their lax enforcement of safety standards. He has also won a major settlement for 650 West Virginians whose water supply was poisoned by Blankenship's company.
Most threatening to Blankenship is that he has finally been directly implicated in the greater of the two deadly disasters, which left 29 miners dead, and federal prosecutors appear to have him squarely in their sights.
Leamer credits Fawcett and Stanley with greatly paving the way for the feds, emboldening them by keeping the media and legal spotlight on Blankenship. "They realized the evil he did and the harm he's done," Leamer says. "Without them, it wouldn't have happened."
Laurence Leamer speaks at Books & Books tomorrow, June 12, at 8 p.m. Admission is free. Visit booksandbooks.com.
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