Coal miners and other employees linked to the Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp. have contributed tens of thousands of dollars toward the re-election campaigns for Ohio Republicans, from the governor down to two members of the Ohio Supreme Court.
A majority of the donors, like Teresa and Nolan Behunin, live outside of Ohio. The Behunins, in fact, live 1,700 miles from Ohio in a small Utah mining town. Yet they were among the 934 employees of Murray Energy or its subsidiaries who sent checks on May 19 to the re-election campaigns of Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, Secretary of State Jon Husted and Ohio Supreme Court Justices Sharon Kennedy and Judith French. Nearly 600 of the employees listed addresses outside of Ohio, a Dayton Daily News investigation found.
Another 78 checks from Murray employees poured into Gov. John Kasich’s re-election campaign on Nov. 21. And on Aug. 18, Attorney General Mike DeWine and Treasurer Josh Mandel, also Republicans, attended a Murray fundraiser in Illinois and collected 98 checks between the two of them.
Most of the donations were small. The Behunins sent $10 each to the campaigns of Yost, Husted and Kennedy. But together they constitute a sizable amount — $147,000 to Ohio Republicans from coal miners and other Murray Energy employees and the company’s Political Action Committee.
This raises a curious question: Why would coal miners in other states care about who is elected in Ohio?
A lawsuit filed by a fired Murray Energy employee suggests they don’t, or at least some of them don’t. Jean F. Cochenour, who worked as a preparation plant shift foreman at a Murray mine in West Virginia, alleges in her lawsuit that she and other Murray employees were pressured to make political contributions. And Cochenour claims she was fired because she declined to contribute — a claim the company strongly disputes.
It’s not the first time Murray has been accused of pressuring employees to make political donations, however.
Two years ago, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit watchdog, filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission against Murray alleging violations because of pressure tactics. The FEC has yet to rule, but CREW updated its complaint this month with new information from the Cochenour lawsuit.
The company was founded in 1988 by Robert Murray, and Cochenour alleges in her lawsuit that checks for candidates are routed through his office, giving him the opportunity to track who gives and who doesn’t.
The company declined interviews but said in written responses to the newspaper that Murray does not track political contributions from employees.
“Mr. Murray’s personal solicitations for contributions on behalf of candidates make clear that contributions are voluntary,” the company said. “There is nothing impermissible about asking and explaining the importance of political support to the future of the coal industry.”
The donations from Murray Energy workers show how the debate over coal is crossing state lines. Last month a dozen states filed a lawsuit to stop the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from enacting new emission standards that could put many coal-fired power plants out of business.
Opponents of the standards, which include many business and industry groups, say the rules will do little to combat climate change while jacking up utility bills and hemorrhaging jobs.
Advocates say the rules, which call for cutting carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants by 30 percent between 2005 and 2030, will reap huge health benefits through a reduction in air pollutants and the advancement of new, cleaner renewable energy sources. These non-polluting sources will fill the void left by phasing out aging, inefficient coal-fired plants, the proponents argue. Some even say the standards don’t go far enough, since sizable emissions reductions have already occurred.
The implications for Ohio are huge because the state gets more than 90 percent of its electricity from coal-fired plants.
In the thick of the debate is Murray Energy. Based in St. Clairsville near the West Virginia border, Murray is the largest privately-owned coal company in the country with 7,300 employees, 13 active mines, three equipment manufacturing plants, 500 oil and gas wells and three billion tons of coal reserves. The company was thrust in the public limelight in August 2007, when a cave-in at the Murray-owned Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah killed six miners and three rescue workers.
Murray, the son of a coal miner who himself started mining as a teenager, is an outspoken titan of coal. Known as a climate change denier, he is a vocal opponent of President Barack Obama and the U.S. EPA and a tenacious GOP fundraiser.
He personally contributed $10,775 to Ohio Republicans running for statewide office in the past year, Kasich being the largest beneficiary.
Murray makes no secret of his political views. He holds regular fundraisers at banquet halls in St. Clairsville and Harrisburg, Ill., for several GOP candidates at a time, and invites employees to participate. But, according to the company, the invitations are not a requirement to contribute.
“In his invitations, he tells all employees that they do not have to give anything to join the dinner,” the company said in its written answers to the newspaper.
Cochenour paints a stark contrast of the company and its practices in her Sept. 4 lawsuit, which alleges that employees were coerced into donating to the owner’s preferred candidates.
After Murray bought the Marion County, W.Va., mine in late 2013, Cochenour says she and other employees started getting letters every other month from Murray asking them to contribute to specific candidates and send the checks to him. Managers were told they were expected to give 1 percent of their salaries to Murray Energy’s political action committee, the lawsuit alleges.
Melanie Sloan, executive director for CREW, said Murray employees rarely speak out because they are threatened with retaliation.
“The minute they speak out, they’re afraid they’re going to lose their jobs,” Sloan said.
In her lawsuit, Cochenour also alleged she was fired because of her gender. She was the company’s only female preparation plant foreman, according to the complaint.
Murray called the allegations “baseless.”
“Ms. Cochenour and her lawyer, Mr. Allan N. Karlin, filed their baseless lawsuit in an attempt to extort money from Murray Energy Corporation,” the statement says. “Their statements are blatantly false and totally concocted. Indeed, Ms. Cochenour was fired because she grossly failed to perform her job adequately. Undoubtedly, her lack of management cost Murray Energy Corporation hundreds of thousands of dollars. Her firing has nothing to do with anything but her demonstrated lack of performance.”
Murray Energy employee money is helping fuel Republican campaigns in Ohio. Kasich received $59,600 from donors with links to Murray Energy, including $16,830 from out of state. Yost received $20,148 from 271 donors; Husted received $17,581 from 333 donors; Kennedy received $4,540 from 18 Murray Energy employees and $4,000 from the Murray PAC; and French received $17,085, including $4,000 from the PAC. DeWine received $11,102 from 100 donors while Mandel netted $6,165 from 59 donors.
Catherine Turcer, a campaign finance expert with Common Cause Ohio, said coal miners in far flung places may have a legitimate interest in Ohio politics. The governor, attorney general and supreme court justices play roles in property rights and environmental regulation policies, but the auditor, secretary of state and treasurer have virtually no connection to the coal industry, she said.
“It is a fine line between an employer making recommendations or suggestions and really strong-arming employees,” Turcer said.
DeWine said he was aware of Cochenour’s lawsuit, which was filed after the Murray fundraiser. He noted that workers and others are concerned about government regulations impacting the coal industry and its jobs.
Husted said in a written statement that he shook hands with all the fundraiser attendees. “I am proud to have the support of hard-working coal miners and their families,” he said. “The Obama administration’s war on coal is threatening their jobs, their families and the Ohio economy and I am going to do all I can to help these families and keep energy affordable for all Ohioans.”
Mandel deflected questions about why coal miners in other states would contribute to his re-election campaign. “You’d have to ask them,” he said.
Messages left with donors who work for Murray Energy went mostly unanswered. David Tad Fausett of Utah, who in May contributed $20 each to Yost, Husted, Kennedy and French, told a reporter to call the Murray Energy headquarters in St. Clairsville, regarding his political donations.
The company said: “The reality is that Murray Energy Corporation and its leaders have used their speech and association rights permitted under the Constitution — and will continue to do so to protect their industry and the many people who depend on our industry, as well as electric power ratepayers.”