U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., criticized the alleged actions of a prominent West Virginia law firm Wednesday, a day after a national report accused Jackson Kelly of repeatedly hiding evidence in order to help its coal company clients in black lung benefits cases brought by coal miners.
"No legal firm, lawyer, doctor, or solicitor should be allowed to intentionally and illegally manipulate the court system in order to protect corporations from being held accountable for failing to support their workforce," Manchin said in a statement emailed by a spokeswoman.
A union official also blasted the law firm, saying the allegations are a long time coming.
"Those attorneys who participated in this scheme deserve to suffer all the penalties available, but no penalty that may be imposed upon them by the legal system can compare with the suffering they have inflicted on hard working miners who gave their health and years off their lives to their employers, only to be scammed out of the benefits they were owed," said Phil Smith, a United Mine Workers of America spokesman.
The comments come in response to a lengthy investigative report released earlier this week by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization.
Jackson Kelly, a law firm based in Charleston with offices in five other states and Washington, D.C., frequently represents coal companies. Coal is one of 14 different industries represented by the law firm, according to its website.
The center's report accuses its attorneys of withholding medical information that could have helped coal miners prove they had black lung.
A second story in the series accuses a prominent Johns Hopkins University doctor of almost always declaring miners don't have black lung. Other doctors from a variety of other health care entities say many of those cases do show black lung, according to the latest story.
Jackson Kelly declined comment.
In court documents filed in several different cases, attorneys for the firm have argued they have no legal obligation to turn over such documents and they want to prepare a case that gives their clients the best chance to win.
Manchin and Smith said that's not justification for the law firm's alleged actions.
"The reported allegations appear to show that hardworking miners and their families were denied the benefits and health care services they deserved to treat black lung and provide for their families," Manchin said in the statement.
"If these reports are true, and the individuals illegally withheld evidence at the expense of sick miners, they should be punished by the appropriate authorities to the fullest extent of the law."
Douglas Smoot, a Jackson Kelly attorney accused of hiding evidence in a black lung case, had his law license suspended in 2011 for one year. The state Supreme Court ruled he violated the state rules of professional conduct, calling his actions "deceitful" and "dishonest."
He is not listed in the attorneys directory on the Jackson Kelly website.