Thornsbury resists stepping down in water case

WILLIAMSON – Mingo Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury says allegations that he is biased in a case involving hundreds of county residents who accuse Massey Energy of poisoning the water supply with coal slurry are baseless.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs in an earlier motion had sought Thornsbury's recusal from the case, alleging he was involved in setting up his business partner, Dr. Donovan Beckett, as administrator of a medical monitoring fund in the case, potentially enabling Beckett to reap huge fees.

The lawyers also alleged that Thornsbury was a little too close to Massey CEO Don Blankenship. The motion said the two were spotted eating together at a restaurant in Mingo while the case was pending.

Thornsbury said in a letter to West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin that the motion "contains numerous completely false and/or misleading allegations."

Thornsbury warned Benjamin that granting the plaintiffs' motion for him to step down would cause a "substantial delay" in the case, which is set to go to trial in October. Thornsbury estimated the trial would take up to six months to complete.

As to Beckett, the plaintiffs alleged that Thornsbury and lawyers from Jackson Kelly – the firm representing Massey in the matter – had ex parte communications about appointing Beckett administrator of the medical monitoring fund. The plaintiffs claim they had no knowledge of Beckett's relationship with the judge, or they would have objected to his appointment.

Thornsbury in his response denied any ex parte communications with Massey lawyers about the appointment. Thornsbury said the decision to recommend appointing Beckett was his alone.

"This court independent of any recommendation by counsel, thought Dr. Beckett was best suited to handle the responsibilities," Thornsbury wrote, adding that Beckett is one of only a few local physicians with the facilities to handle the task of the medical monitoring.

But Thornsbury said the argument as to Beckett is moot anyway. He said there has been no order appointing Beckett administrator. He added that Beckett has declined the appointment because Beckett's practice involved the handling of referrals from Massey.

Thornsbury denied that he had lunch with Blankenship at the Starters restaurant, as the plaintiffs alleged.

"I have no political nor business ties with Mr. Blankenship and social contact is limited to exchanging ordinary greetings," Thornsbury wrote.

The judge said an affidavit that reported the alleged lunch is false and was executed with malice.

"At some point truth must prevail," Thornsbury said. "There is no conflict of appearance of impropriety. If there was any type of actual close personal relationship between this court and Mr. Blankenship, there would be ample evidence of the same, not a flimsy, false affidavit from a questionable individual."

Thornsbury provided with his response affidavits from a principal of the restaurant, a waitress and Mingo Chief Magistrate Eugene Crum – who dined with Thornsbury on the date cited by the plaintiffs – that Blankenship did not join the judge.

"There are numerous other eye witnesses fully prepared to execute affidavits if deemed necessary," Thornsbury wrote. "I only remember seeing Don Blankenship on three or four occasions at Starters Restaurant in the last three years."

Thornsbury said the man that alleged he saw the judge and Blankenship dining together – Jack Spence – is angry with the court because complaints were filed against him in 2008 alleging he was electioneering at the Mingo County Clerk's office, a polling place.

Mingo Circuit Court case number: 08-C-69

More Stories