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A Coal Company Owner Responds

In an article in the new issue of the magazine, I describe the pressure that Robert Murray, the owner of coal company Murray Energy, has for years exerted on his salaried employees to give to the company's political action committee and to Republican candidates, including Mitt Romney. The article was based on the accounts of two Murray sources and on documents I obtained, including letters from Murray lambasting employees for not giving more and tables and a list of employee names showing who was giving and who was not.

The company's general counsel denied that Murray was pressuring employees to give or rewarding them in any way for their contributions, as the sources had described occurring. Now comes Murray himself with, as far as I can tell, his first public comments on the matter, in an interview with Erich Schwartzel of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "It's timed to shut me up. It's a dishonest, totally false and fabricated group of charges to embarrass Gov. Mitt Romney, my family, our company and me."

Murray was reacting both to the piece and to two subsequent requests that federal authorities look into Murray's fundraising—one from the Ohio Democratic Party, which sent a letter to the U.S. Attorney for Northern Ohio and the Cuyahoga County prosecutor requesting an investigation, and one from the good-government group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which filed a formal complaint with the Federal Election Commission.

Under federal law, employers may not make political contributions a condition of employment, or reimburse employees for contributions. In May, I reported on questionable donations from employees of another Ohio company, Suarez Corporation, to Ohio Senate candidate Josh Mandel and Congressman Jim Renacci. Those donations sparked an FBI investigation, and the two candidates later returned the money to the employees—more than $100,000 for each candidate.

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Murray Energy, whose employees have given more than $1.4 million to Republican candidates for federal office since 2007, has 15 days to respond to the FEC complaint. The company rejected the Ohio Democratic Party's request for a federal investigation in a press release Monday dismissing the allegations as the work of a "biased and radically leftist" magazine.

The Post-Gazette reports that Murray said that he had talked with the Romney campaign about the allegations and that "they assured him it would pass." "They said, 'We get a lot of charges, this will go away,' " Murray said.

My article reports that employees receive invitations to Murray fundraisers every few weeks, with suggested donation levels, and it quotes from exhortations such as this one, sent by Murray to company supervisors this past spring: “What is so difficult about asking a well-paid, salaried employee to give us three hours of his/her time every two months?...We have been insulted by every salaried employee who does not support our efforts.” Murray concludes: “I do not recall ever seeing the attached list of employees . . . at one of our fund-raisers.”

But Murray told the Post-Gazette that employees are not required to give to the fundraisers or attend the events. "Sometimes they come and get a free meal—it's OK, nobody is obligated," he said.

Murray also denied an account that had emerged in the weeks prior to my article—that he had forced miners in southeastern Ohio to attend Romney's speech at the Murray mine in Beallsville, Ohio in August. Mining operations were suspended for the event and the miners were attending the event without pay, according to miners I spoke with at the event and newspaper reports following the event. But Murray told the Post-Gazette he had shut down operations not to help build up the crowd but because of safety concerns: "Secret Service snipers had positioned themselves around the location, and the event logistics made it impossible to continue work, Mr. Murray said." 'I'm not going to put anybody in a coal mine when I can't rescue them,' Murray said."

An internal company memo from Murray prior to the event does not mention safety concerns. Instead, it tells company supervisors that "we must...have all possible employees of Murray Energy Corporation and Subsidiary Companies in attendance."

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis