By John Cheves – firstname.lastname@example.org
FRANKFORT — Retired coal executive Mike Templeman is running for Congress with no apologies for a career that includes bankruptcies, debt lawsuits, unpaid taxes and environmental messes left by his strip-mining companies in Appalachia.
Until this month, there was a pending criminal summons for Templeman in Franklin District Court. He faced a contempt-of-court charge for skipping a 2009 hearing about an old, boarded-up house he’s allowing to deteriorate, to the dismay of Frankfort officials who want him to repair it.
After the Herald-Leader asked him about the summons, his attorney arranged for it to be recalled. A new hearing is set for March 30.
Templeman, 62, says voters this year are angry enough to elect someone like him who fights the government.
“You send me to Congress and I’ve had all these life experiences,” said Templeman, one of six Republicans competing in the May 18 primary to challenge U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, in November. Chandler has no Democratic opponent.
“I’ve had some successes and I’ve had some failures,” Templeman said in a recent interview at his hilltop farm overlooking the state Capitol. “I think that’s what we need in Washington. I think your failures can educate you more than your successes.”
One of his oldest friends, state Sen. Julian Carroll, D-Frankfort, said Templeman is tapping into the populist outrage that challengers think can get them elected this year.
Carroll introduced Templeman to politics in the 1970s.
As governor, Carroll chose Templeman, a Kentucky State Police officer, as his driver. Carroll said he admired the young trooper’s self-confidence. Later, Templeman quit the police, and Carroll installed him at Kentucky Democratic Party headquarters to work on campaigns.
“I love Mike very dearly,” said Carroll, who nonetheless supports Chandler’s re-election. “He is a very charismatic individual, very confident, very friendly. I liked being surrounded by such people.”
Templeman continued to give money to Democrats through last year, when he sent $1,000 to the current U.S. Senate campaign of Attorney General Jack Conway. He donated about $75,000 over the past dozen years to Republicans and Democrats.
Templeman said he likes Conway because, as Gov. Paul Patton’s general counsel a decade ago, Conway helped revise workers’ compensation laws in ways that pleased coal operators. Generally, he gives more to Republicans, he said.
He said he stopped identifying as a Democrat during his coal career. Under Democrats, he said, government interferes in the free market, with burdensome taxes and regulations making it difficult for companies to succeed.
In Congress, for example, Chandler voted with the Democratic majority last year for a “cap and trade” bill to curb emissions of greenhouse gases. That would devastate Kentucky’s coal industry, Templeman said.
“I was in business in the 1980s. I truly believe that a big portion of the recession in the ’80s was government-driven,” he said. “It’s almost like deja vu for me to see where we are today.”
Coal and bankruptcy
Templeman, divorced with three grown children, lives with his elderly mother next-door to his ex-wife and one of their daughters.
He spoke candidly and at length about his life. But he declined to make available his friends or political supporters for interviews, saying he expected negative news coverage and saw no reason to subject them to it. Former colleagues in the coal industry did not return calls seeking comment for this article.
Templeman grew up in various Eastern Kentucky towns, following the duty assignments of his stepfather, a state trooper. He graduated from Pikeville High School and Eastern Kentucky University before spending five years in the state police himself.
Following his work for the Kentucky Democratic Party, Templeman saw opportunity in the coalfields. He started a number of strip-mining companies in the 1980s in Kentucky and West Virginia. They sometimes ended badly.
Tag Coal Corp., for example, was permitted by the state in 1982 to mine 184 acres on Lower Pompey Creek in Pike County.
State records show at least 18 citations issued against Tag Coal, and more than $20,000 in fines for water pollution, mud and rock slides (one covered a county road and nearly took out a garage) and failure to reclaim mined areas through backfilling, grading and revegetation, among other violations.
Templeman said he paid the fines, and when he finished mining, the state returned his reclamation bond, indicating that he satisfied the requirements.
“In the area that I mined, I don’t remember any significant violations,” he said. “Well, I can only remember, like, two.”
In 1989, Tag Coal filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection, listing $586,667 in debts and $290,000 in assets. Among its creditors was the Internal Revenue Service, which claimed $229,563 in unpaid federal income taxes from 1982 to 1984.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Lexington, representing the IRS, subsequently seized money that Tag Coal had won in Floyd Circuit Court and used that to pay the taxes.
Templeman said Tag Coal was ruined when it went into the site-preparation business for a Louisville developer who planned to build Wal-Marts throughout Eastern Kentucky. The developer went bankrupt owing Tag Coal about $1 million, Templeman said.
“It was $1 million I didn’t have,” Templeman said. “It just basically broke me.”
West Virginia mess
Templeman got into worse trouble in West Virginia.
There, he started Templeman Construction Co. in 1986 to strip-mine 25 acres on a mountain above Campbells Creek near Charleston.
State mine inspectors soon cited the company for many of the same problems Tag Coal caused in Kentucky: water pollution (in one case, “blackwater waste” poured into Campbells Creek for several hours because of negligence) and failure to reclaim the mined area, such as a 90-foot-high wall left exposed.
During 1987, records show, West Virginia hit Templeman with six cessation orders and 13 penalties. He did not respond. Eventually, he racked up $112,500 in unpaid fines. The state handed his case to a private collection agency, which said it could not find Templeman. He had, by then, returned to Kentucky.
In 1988, West Virginia revoked Templeman’s mining permit and forfeited his $25,000 reclamation bond. The Charleston Gazette later reported that it cost more than $200,000 for the state to reclaim the mine site.
Consequently, Templeman was entered into the U.S. Office of Surface Mining’s Applicant Violator System, which prevented him from obtaining mine permits. That ended his days as a coal operator.
Templeman was one of the “outlaw operators” who crossed the state line from Kentucky during the late 1980s to take advantage of West Virginia’s looser laws, said Mark March, a United Mine Workers organizer in Charleston at the time.
March and Templeman clashed over the latter’s mine, which was not unionized.
“He ran up violations like crazy,” March said. “He was part of this group that just ran wild out here. It’s ‘Grab all the coal you can get and break the rules and don’t pay your bills, and then get out before you get caught.’”
Templeman blamed the UMW for what happened in West Virginia. The union threatened his workers with gunfire and vandalized his equipment, he said, forcing him to flee his mine and leave the work unfinished.
“I said, ‘This is not worth this. To get a person killed up here, I will not be a party to this,’” Templeman said.
March denies that the UMW used violence.
The Charleston Gazette in 1986 reported an incident in which police investigated men wearing ski masks and carrying baseball bats outside of Templeman’s mine, blocking vehicles trying to enter. No arrests were made and nobody was hurt, police said.
Two decades later, in 2007, Templeman agreed to pay $90,000 to West Virginia to settle the case against him. State officials accepted his explanation that he was forced off his own site and removed his name from the Applicant Violator System.
Working for others
Legally barred from owning mines, Templeman finished his career as an executive at other men’s coal companies.
He spent the 1990s as a lobbyist and public affairs manager for Mapco Inc., then one of Kentucky’s top coal producers. That’s where he encountered Tony Oppegard, an attorney for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration under President Bill Clinton.
Oppegard recalled butting heads with Templeman at an MSHA meeting with Eastern Kentucky coal operators to discuss new regulations to protect miners from black-lung disease, caused by exposure to coal dust.
“The meeting had no sooner started than Mike Templeman stood up and declared that he didn’t even believe there was such a thing as black lung,” Oppegard said. “It was surreal.”
In his interview, Templeman said he would not have denied that black lung exists, although he might have said that its frequency is grossly exaggerated.
“I’ve worked in coal for many years and I don’t have black lung,” he said. “Not more than 3 percent of people who work in coal mines over a lifetime end up with significant black lung.”
Later, Templeman worked at Alliance Coal, and finally, Energy Coal Resources, where, as chief operating officer, he was assigned to strengthen the company and prepare it for an initial public offering. He retired in 2008. The next year, the company’s Kentucky subsidiary, Appalachian Fuels, was forced into bankruptcy by its creditors.
Templeman said Energy Coal Resources, which never went public, was healthy when he departed. “I don’t know that I could tell you what happened to them,” Templeman said.
Calls to Stephen Addington, the company’s chief executive, were not returned.
‘Out of the box’
Templeman ran into more trouble with his family’s J&M Equipment Co., which rented machinery to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.
He arranged in 1990 for J&M to get a low-interest loan from the Small Business Administration for $68,300, to replace damaged equipment. He and his family were sued for loan default in 2005 and 2007 by LPP Mortgage Ltd., an entity that collects delinquent SBA loans.
Templeman denied the allegation and hired Carroll, his old friend, to represent him in court. But he finally settled and paid off the loan’s $41,000 balance, to spare his mother the frustration, he said.
As a congressman, Templeman said, he would open an investigation of SBA and lender Countrywide Financial Corp., whom he blames for mistreating his family.
“If I get to Washington, I assure you, I’ll get into Countrywide and the SBA,” he said. “I have a personal reason to get into it.”
Voters in Central Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District can expect him to battle federal agencies he thinks are bloated or unnecessary, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Education, Energy and Labor.
Nobody needs to tell him how government can harass a businessman, he said. He learned the hard way.
“I think people are looking for someone to go to Congress who looks like them,” he said. “I am out of the box. I am not what you would consider the perfect candidate.”
News researcher Lu-Ann Farrar contributed to this report.