UPPER BIG BRANCH MINE DISASTER ; Massey Official Cooperating as Probe Widens

Article excerpt

A longtime Massey Energy executive has agreed to cooperate with investigators as they continue to try to work their way up the corporate ladder in their probe of the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years, federal prosecutors revealed Wednesday.

Former Massey official David C. Hughart will plead guilty to two criminal charges and provide testimony about a decade-long conspiracy to defy safety laws and hide the resulting conditions from government inspectors.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said that Hughart plotted with other company officials to routinely violate ventilation and dust-control standards at Massey mines and to cover up those infractions.

In an interview, Goodwin called the plea agreement with Hughart "a significant step" in an ongoing investigation that began with the deaths of 29 miners at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine and has expanded into a broader examination of the former coal giant's safety practices.

"We are digging deeper and moving forward," Goodwin said.

The charges against Hughart target alleged crimes that occurred between 2000 and 2010 at Massey's White Buck operations in Nicholas County, where two mid-level foremen and a Massey operating subsidiary were prosecuted five years ago for criminal safety violations.

But in new court documents, Goodwin and Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby allege a broader conspiracy by as-yet unnamed "directors, officers, and agents" of Massey operating companies to put coal production ahead of worker safety and health at "other coal mines owned by Massey."

It is the first time in their Upper Big Branch probe that prosecutors have alleged Massey officials engaged in a scheme that went beyond the Raleigh County mine that exploded on April 5, 2010.

"The meticulous manner in which the U.S. attorney's office has investigated and brought criminal charges against Massey lower level and now higher ranking mine managers suggests a classic prosecutor's technique of reaching top corporate officials," said West Virginia University law professor Pat McGinley, who served on longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer's independent Upper Big Branch investigation team.

"From what we learned about Massey's management in the Upper Big Branch investigation and from these prosecutions, I expect that those who ran Massey's mining operations are retaining criminal defense counsel right now," McGinley said. "If they aren't, they should be."

Prosecutors identified Hughart as having served as president of Massey's Green Valley "resource group," one of about two dozen such divisions Massey operated in three states. Green Valley included three mines and was among the smaller of Massey's resource groups.

But beyond his role at Green Valley, Hughart worked for Massey for more than 20 years, serving as an officer or a director at more than two-dozen subsidiaries.

"It's fair to say he was a very high-level executive with Massey," Goodwin said during an appearance on the MetroNews statewide radio show "Talkline." "He was a significant player."

Samantha Davison, a spokeswoman for Alpha Natural Resources, said that Hughart was fired by Massey in March 2010 and never worked for Alpha, which bought Massey in June 2011.

Hughart's attorney, Tim Carrico of Charleston, could not be immediately reached for comment. A home telephone listing for Hughart had been disconnected.

In filings today in U.S. District Court in Beckley, Hughart was charged with one felony count of conspiracy to defraud the federal government by trying to thwart government oversight of mining by warning underground workers of impending inspections. This so- called "advance notice" of inspections has become a key part of the Upper Big Branch criminal probe and was a focus of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration's disaster investigation.

Hughart, 53, of Crab Orchard, was also charged with one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to violate federal mine safety and health standards. …