Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Price of Justice: A True Story of Two Lawyers' Epic Battle Against Corruption and Greed in Coal Country, by Laurence Leamer

Times Books/Henry Holt, 2013
448 pp

(arc: thanks to LibraryThing's early reviewers program  and to the publisher for my copy)

"A fair trial in a fair tribunal is a fundamental constitutional right...That means not only the absence of actual bias, but a guarantee against even the probability of an unfair tribunal." (334)

When I first requested this book from LibraryThing I thought it sounded interesting, and once I picked it up, I didn't realize just how blah a word "interesting" would come to be in this case. That cliché about not being able to put the book down was absolutely true for me. I'll get right to the point and say that this is one of the most outstanding books I've read this year. Coming on the heels of Going Clear by Lawrence Wright, you can believe that The Price of Justice was a powerful read.  It reads much like a legal thriller, but this story of corporate greed, judicial and political corruption, and sheer, unmitigated disregard for human life in return for one man's drive for greater profit in the coal industry is all too real.

While there are several issues covered in this work of investigative journalism, at the heart of this story is the question of whether or not corporations should be allowed to fund the very court justices who are involved in rulings involving the corporation, by the question of correctness in allowing the justice in question to remain as a judge. In this instance, it all started with a verdict handed down by a West Virginia court in the case of Caperton v. Massey Coal Company. Mr. Caperton had sued Massey because it had canceled its contract with Harman Mining to supply Harman with needed coal. Caperton, the owner of Harman, was severely affected by Massey's fraudulent cancellation, and his company went out of business.  He found himself in huge trouble and a mounting pile of debts including miners' pension funds.  His attorneys, Bruce Stanley and Dave Fawcett, worked hard to get Caperton an award for damages;  Massey, headed by Don Blankenship, appealed the decision and the case was set to be ruled on by the West Virginia Supreme Court.  However, before the judgment could be appealed, an election of a new WV Supreme Court Justice was underway, and Blankenship set up a nonprofit through which he was able to contribute millions to eliminate the incumbent (Warren McGraw) and bring in someone he knew would take his side in the case. Although legally not allowed to directly support his candidate of choice (Brent Benjamin), Blankenship used the money to pay for a slur campaign against McGraw.  Even though Blankenship's participation in the campaign against McGraw came to light, the appeals trial continued with Benjamin as a justice, and ended up in Massey's favor.  Later developments would take the case right up to the US Supreme Court, but as Leamer notes, the battle was far from over. In the meantime, Massey (and Blankenship) was allowed to continued its fraudulent practices while the utter disdain for following mandated safety and environmental measures led to tragedy among many mine workers and their families.

For several reasons the topics involved in this  book struck a personal chord. I wish I could say that I was surprised at some of the blatant misdeeds going on in the courts and among politicians as outlined by Mr. Leamer in this most excellent book, but frankly, I'm not. Aside from those issues, I was also deeply disturbed by the blatant disregard that this one man in the coal industry showed for his workers and other human beings whose lives were turned upside down, ruined or extinguished by his unscrupulous business & political practices. His absolute control was backed up by threats, intimidation, money and protection from court officials and politicians who looked out for their own financial and political interests, rather than for the interests of the victims. Had the above-mentioned subjects been all there was to this book, it still would have been good, but Mr. Leamer also examines the price paid in personal terms by everyone involved on the side of obtaining justice, including the dedicated attorneys fighting this man for over 14 years.

Other reviewers of The Price of Justice have correctly noted that this book reads like a legal thriller, and while I'm not a huge fan of that genre, the book kept me turning pages until the very end. Definitely and highly recommended -- absolutely one of the best books I've read this year. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright

Knopf, 2013
430 pp (including index & bibliography)

Once in a while you pick up a book that just literally blows you away, and for me, Going Clear is one of these.   From the first words through the last, I have to say I was completely mesmerized and well entrenched in this page turner of a book -- even missing a day on a Maui beach to finish it -- some of the stuff in here is so unbelievable that you just know it has to be real.   If you're an ardent Scientologist, you probably won't want to read this book, but for anyone who's interested in looking at this group's origins, the life of its founder, its beliefs and the goings on within, it's a definite must read.  Now added to  my favorites list for 2013, Going Clear is an outstanding work of investigative journalism, made even more believable by the author's focus on maintaining a balanced presentation, including comments from the Church of Scientology's leaders, attorneys, and meticulous fact finding and fact checking.  I'll skip to my usual ending and recommend it highly right up front. 

The author was, in his own words, "drawn to write this book" based on a number of questions many people have regarding Scientology: what makes it so "alluring;" what its adherents gain from it; how "seemingly rational people" can subscribe to beliefs that most people would see as "incomprehensible;" why celebrities and other "popular personalities" get themselves involved when the end result is a "public relations martyrdom;"  etc.  The book starts out with a look at the life of L.Ron Hubbard, a science-fiction writer who ultimately became the founder of this religion/cult/organization whatever you want to call it, the beliefs it is founded on and espouses,  and its growing popularity.  Then Wright spends some time on just how Scientology came to acquire religion status with the IRS -- an ugly story that  will cause you to shake your head in total disbelief, -- and how even the FBI couldn't shake down this organization despite its illegal maneuverings and activities because no one would speak up.  He also examines the Hollywood celebrities and other well-known people who embraced Scientology and how the head of the organization came to woo them for monetary gain and as a lure for new members, and finally, he examines why people are reluctant to leave the organization and the experiences of those who managed to "blow."   Throughout the book he also examines "the process of belief," not just in terms of Scientology, but in other religions as well. He's done an amazing amount of meticulous research, and his narrative is based partially on people who got out of Scientology and had plenty to tell, although as I noted above, he gives equal time to Scientology's array of attorneys, some of the organization's own documentation, and to the people high up in the movement.

There is no adequate way to summarize what's in this book's definitely one you must read for yourself. All I can say is that you will likely be blown away by its contents and by Wright's magnificent reportage.  Granted there are a few tedious spots centering around Tom Cruise which probably could have been left out because frankly, he's just not that interesting of a person, but overall, it's one that should not be missed whatsoever.  Definitely prizeworthy, it will keep you absolutely astounded throughout the entire book.  I'm still shaking my head thinking about it!

South Park, Season 9, Episode IS exactly what Scientologists believe!