By Matt Harvey
February 1, 2018 - Jurors deliberated about 5 1/2 hours Wednesday without reaching a verdict in the campaign finance fraud trial of Morgantown, West Virginia coal boss James Lewis Laurita Jr.
Laurita, 58, of Morgantown, is facing prosecution on one count of scheme to cause false statements to Federal Election Commission; two counts causing contributions in the name of another; one count of causing excessive contributions; and three counts of causing false statements to the Federal Election Commission.
Jim Laurita, Jr.
If he's convicted, Laurita, who's pleaded innocent, likely would face no more than a total of 5 years in prison, because the court would group the counts for the purpose of sentencing. In the event of convictions, the sentence also would depend on how jurors answered questions involving the amount of money.
The jury began deliberating shortly after noon, and ended around 5:30 p.m., with multiple questions sent to Senior U.S. District Judge Irene M. Keeley.
One juror was unable to make it for court Thursday due to illness, and was replaced by an alternate. The day was bookended with another juror fighting illness throughout the day, but finally needing to be excused from the panel when the court session concluded. That juror had been seated next to the ill juror who couldn't make it Thursday.
Keeley ordered jurors back at the federal courthouse by 10 a.m. Friday. The jury will have to begin deliberations from scratch.
Earlier in the day, closing arguments were held after Keeley spent about 1 1/4 hours reading jury instructions.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jarod Douglas and First Assistant U.S. Attorney Randolph Bernard allege Laurita orchestrated a campaign to funnel about $500,000 to various congressional candidates' campaigns from early 2010 to July 2013. Money went to the campaigns of U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., U.S. Rep. David McKinley, and Rick Snuffer, who was a candidate for Congress, according to statements by the government.
Laurita held a meeting with eight executives in March of 2010 about entering the political fray, according to Douglas. Almost immediately, employees — who hadn't donated before or only rarely had done so — were routinely making donations that matched up with bonuses paid to them by Laurita's Mepco LLC, according to Douglas.
That amounted to evading campaign finance law by allowing Laurita to skirt the cap on individual annual contributions to a candidate, Douglas asserted. The total an individual could contribute to a candidate in that time period was around $5,000 a year, according to statements in court.
Charleston defense attorney John Carr said Laurita didn't willfully break campaign finance law, that it made sense for Laurita and his executives to become politically active during the so-called "War on Coal," and that the bonuses were subject to withholding like any other money paid to company employees, unlike a wink-and-a-nod envelope full of cash as in other cases.
"Jim Laurita thought he was doing the exact same thing that all the coal companies were doing," Carr said. "... He didn't believe he was doing anything wrong, and he still doesn't."
"What the defendant essentially is saying — I hate to use a cliche — ignore the man behind the curtain, or in this case, the man behind the money, the money for reimbursement," Bernard said.
Mepco LLC is one of several subsidiaries of Longview Power LLC, which had a Chapter 11 bankruptcy plan confirmed in March of 2015 in Delaware. Longview Power LLC developed a $2 billion coal-fired power plant, the Longview Power Plant in Maidsville.
Mepco LLC is parent of Dana Mining Co. of Pennsylvania LLC, which operates the 4-West Deep Mine near Mount Morris, Pennsylvania. That mine will be idled in March and closed later this year, resulting in 370 jobs lost, the Greene County Messenger reported on Jan. 5.
A 4.5-mile conveyor belt ran from Dana Mining No. 4 West to the Longview complex, The Associated Press reported Aug. 30, 2013, about the Longview Power LLC bankruptcy filing earlier that day.
Laurita was president of the West Virginia Coal Association from August 2012 through August 2014, according to Bloomberg. Laurita is no longer listed as a member of the Association’s Board of Directors.