By JEFFREY T. JONES
CHARLESTON -- Stop the madness? The only madness is that Steve Cohen is still masquerading as the voice of the average West Virginia citizen while ranting in column after column about our judicial system being a "hellhole." ("Stop the madness in our courts," Feb. 22)
The truth is that he's a PR professional who's paid to "spin" stories to convince state residents that big corporations should get total immunity when they harm West Virginians. He is a shill for guilty people.
This was never more obvious than in recent weeks as he attacked a Roane County jury that had determined that Columbia Natural Resources, which was owned by NiSource and is now part of Chesapeake Energy, had defrauded West Virginians by underpaying natural gas royalties by $134 million.
The jury listened to testimony and reviewed evidence for three weeks. Witnesses included former Columbia Natural Resources President James Abcouwer, who testified that he had previously questioned NiSource about the way royalties had been paid. In the end, the jury awarded those West Virginians the money they were due, plus an additional $270 million in punitive damages for deliberately withholding the money from royalty owners.
These West Virginians sought justice in our courts -- and received it.
Cohen would have you believe that this is just the latest example of how our state's court system is bad for business.
The truth is that the plaintiffs in the class action included about 150 West Virginia businesses, both small and large. These are businesses that employ West Virginia workers. They invest in their local communities and the people who live there.
One of the businesses involved is Cotiga, which used its royalty payments to fund scholarships for Mingo County students and a shelter for abused women. The class also included farmers, schoolteachers and businesspeople -- people who purchase homes, shop in local stores and pay local taxes.
The money that CNR/NiSource didn't pay to these businesses and individuals was money that never got to be reinvested in our state's economy over the years.
Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon's response to the verdict was no better.
He immediately began to threaten our governor and our Legislature, demanding that they fix the problem or he would take away his planned regional office in Charleston and the jobs that go with it.
It has even been hinted that if the governor and Legislature fail to do what he wants, then McClendon will drop big bucks into the 2008 elections to elect people who will do his bidding.
I'm sure that if an employee had embezzled more than $130 million from Chesapeake's coffers, McClendon would be demanding full restitution and that the employee be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.
Why shouldn't the same be true when big corporations take money that is owed to West Virginians?
Someone needs to tell McClendon that West Virginia is not for sale and that being "open for business" doesn't mean that billion-dollar corporations and their millionaire CEOs are given immunity in our courts. Whether they have produced unsafe products, put their employees in unsafe working conditions, refused to pay fair and just insurance claims -- or cheated thousands of West Virginia residents and businesses out of fair natural gas royalties -- those corporations and CEOs need to be held accountable in our courts. There are no exceptions.
The truth is that what these corporations did was wrong! They got caught and now have to pay the price. Cohen needs to learn that no one is above the law in West Virginia -- not even the billion-dollar, national and multinational corporations funding his paychecks.
Jones is president of the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association.