Last month, a West Virginia woman filed a lawsuit against Murray Energy, the largest privately-held coal-mining company in the country, alleging she was fired from her job as a shift foreman because she had declined CEO Bob Murray’s urgings to make campaign contributions to Republican candidates he favored.
In the brief period she worked for Murray Energy—at the Marion County Mine in West Virginia, which the company bought last year—Jean Cochenour says she received repeated written requests from Bob Murray asking her to give specific amounts to specific candidates. “Not only did Mr. Murray name candidates and specify the amount to be contributed to each candidate, but he also required that the political contributions be returned directly to him in a self-addressed envelope that he enclosed with each of his letters to her,” the lawsuit states. Cochenour did not give anything, and in May, she was ordered to meet with Murray at company headquarters in St. Clairsville, Ohio. She was fired even though, the lawsuit states, she was “satisfactorily performing her duties as a prep plant shift foreman.”
Does any of this sound familiar? If it does, it’s because exactly two years ago, I wrote an in-depth piece for this magazine describing Bob Murray’s years-long efforts to get his salaried employees—engineers, accountants, surveyors and the like—to give to Republican candidates. This approach had helped make Murray, a fiercely outspoken opponent of President Obama, one of the most prolific GOP fundraisers in the country, with Murray employees giving at least $1.4 million to Republican candidates for federal office between 2007 and 2012, plus $720,000 to GOP candidates for state office in Ohio over the past decade. The giving has continued in the current campaign year, in which Murray’s fundraising is again playing an outsized role, particularly in Ohio.
In the piece, I cited internal company documents I obtained showing that Murray and his top deputies were not only urging employees to give to the company political action committee and attend his many personal fundraisers—he held nine different ones in one three-month period during the 2008 campaign—but that company officials were also tracking who gave and who did not. From the piece:
Internal Murray documents show just how upset Murray becomes when employees fail to join the giving. In missives, he cajoles employees to attend fund-raisers and scolds them when they or their subordinates do not. In cases of low participation, reminders from his lieutenants have included tables or spreadsheets showing how each of the eleven Murray subsidiaries was performing. And at least one note came with a list of names of employees who had not yet given. “What is so difficult about asking a well-paid, salaried employee to give us three hours of his/her time every two months?” Murray writes in a March 2012 letter. “We have been insulted by every salaried employee who does not support our efforts.” He concludes: “I do not recall ever seeing the attached list of employees…at one of our fund-raisers.”
I also quoted this foreboding line from a Murray letter to company managers ahead of a 2011 fundraiser for Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker and Tennessee Senator Bob Corker: “I am asking you to rally all of your salaried employees and have them make their contribution to our event as soon as possible. Please see that our salaried employees ‘step up,’ for their own sakes and those of their employees.” And this, even more pointed September 2010 letter from Murray lamenting insufficient contributions to the company PAC: “The response to this letter of appeal has been poor. We have only a little over a month left to go in this election fight. If we do not win it, the coal industry will be eliminated and so will your job, if you want to remain in this industry.” And I reported that two Murray employees told me that it was their distinct impression that company bonuses to workers were dependent on how much workers gave in political contributions.
As I noted in the piece, the law around employers encouraging workers to give to certain candidates has gray areas. Employers cannot reimburse their employees’ donations—in fact, in another case I helped uncover in 2012, the head of an Ohio direct-marketing company was tried in federal court on charges that his company had reimbursed workers for large contributions they made to a Republican congressman and candidate for U.S. Senate. Employers may also not make contributions to a company PAC a condition for employment. That said, an employer’s right to free speech also allows him to make his own political leanings clear. The hard-to-define line is figuring out when an employer’s statement of support for a given candidate comes across as more demanding than that.
In response to my questions in 2012, Murray's general counsel said all of the encouragements to contribute were legal. “It’s my understanding that the employees are encouraged to give, and he is enthusiastic about people giving contributions,” he said. “I’ve never ever seen people pay any consequence for giving or not giving to this PAC or events.” In response to my questions this week about Cochenour’s lawsuit, the company replied with a statement calling it “baseless,” “blatantly false,” “totally concocted” and an “attempt to extort money from Murray Energy Corporation.” “Ms. Cochenour was fired because she grossly failed to perform her job adequately,” the statement read. “Undoubtedly, her lack of management cost Murray Energy Corporation thousands of dollars. Her firing has nothing to do with anything but her demonstrated lack of performance.” The company reiterated that Murray’s solicitations “make clear that contributions are voluntary.” “Mr. Murray’s personal fundraisers are merely an attempt to support the coal industry, save the jobs in it from the ongoing destruction of them, and hold down electric power costs, particularly for those on fixed incomes,” the company said. Cochenour’s attorney declined to comment for this piece.
It should not be surprising that Murray, whose company owned the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah where nine miners and rescuers lost their lives in a 2007 collapse, has continued soliciting contributions from employees despite the questions that were raised in 2012. He cares very deeply about stopping what he sees as the Democrats’ anti-coal agenda, so much so that he has led the way in filing suit to block the Obama administration’s new limits on carbon emissions. The real question that Cochenour’s lawsuit prompts is not really for Murray, but for the authorities: whether there has been any attempt on their part to look into whether Murray's fundraising falls within the guidelines described above.
After my article appeared in 2012, both the Ohio Democratic Party and the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission, asking it to look into the matter. Neither has gotten any indication in the two years since that the FEC is doing any sort of inquiry. When I called the FEC myself this week, I was told by a spokesman that the case is still open, but that he was unable to tell me anything about the case—even whether there’s any activity going on around it—because the FEC can’t comment on open cases: “If it’s not closed it means the matter is open, that at some level the complaint is being looked at, but whether it’s being investigated, I don’t have that information and if I did, I wouldn’t be able to give it to you.”
So, with that Kafkaesque explanation from the public agency overseeing our nation’s elections, here we are: a full two years after Murray’s approach to fundraising among his employees was brought to light, the government has still not provided an answer as to whether such an approach is proper. It’s no secret that the FEC is deeply dysfunctional, stymied by partisan gridlock that its Republican appointees have used to forestall enforcement of our campaign finance laws. But still, even by the usual standards of paralysis, this case stands out. With luck, we’ll have an answer on all this by the time the 2016 election rolls around.
Addendum, October 3, 11 a.m.: Murray Energy's full written response to my questions is attached here.