Watchdog and Ohio Democrats accuse coal executive of coercing donations

Ohio Democrats and a nonpartisan watchdog group want federal prosecutors and election regulators to probe allegations that Murray Energy Corp., a pro-GOP coal company, illegally forced employees to contribute to Republican candidates.

The company’s political action committee backs Mitt Romney and other Republicans, and one of its Ohio mines was the site of Romney speech in August that some workers described as a mandatory event attended without pay.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has filed a Federal Election Commission complaint claiming that the Ohio-based company’s CEO “coerced employees” to give to the company’s PAC by threatening reprisals, including job loss, if they didn’t.

“It is outrageous for a business owner to abuse his power to force his employees to support a political candidate. Whether coercing company executives to make campaign contributions or insisting coal miners take time off without pay so that a candidate can stage pretty pictures — it is all illegal,” CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said in a statement Tuesday.

Separately, the Ohio Democratic Party asked the Justice Department on Monday to conduct a criminal probe of whether Murray Energy “may have engaged in a pattern of illegal activity, extorting millions in financial contributions from employees and vendors for Republican candidates running for public office.”

CREW and the Ohio Democrats base their charges on a story in The New Republic about the company’s political fundraising operation.

The Ohio Democrats’ letter to the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Northern District of Ohio said The New Republic’s story “raises serious questions” about whether the solicitation of donations to Romney and other GOP candidates involved extortion and other crimes.

Throughout the campaign, Romney and other Republicans have said that Obama administration regulations are burdening the coal industry, hurting workers in the swing states of Ohio and Virginia.

Murray Energy, in a statement, criticized the Ohio Democrats and The New Republic story.

“The allegations by the Ohio Democratic Party are simply an attempt to silence Murray Energy and its owners from supporting their coal mining employees and families by speaking out against President Barack Obama’s well known and documented War on Coal and to get him re-elected, along with his supporters,” the company said.

A spokesman for the Romney campaign, in response to the Ohio Democrats’ charges, similarly said that Obama’s policies have “devastated middle-class families and coal communities in Ohio.”

“These gimmicks by Barack Obama’s left-wing allies are nothing more than an ineffective and pathetic attempt to distract voters away from that reality,” spokesman Chris Maloney told Toledo, Ohio's The Blade.