Last updated: July 17. 2013 1:23PM - 1401 Views

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Chad Abshire

Staff Writer

MORGANTOWN — Federal prosecutors investigating the Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 men filed criminal charges against a longtime Massey Energy executive who worked closely with former CEO Don Blankenship — a move signaling where their sights may be ultimately set.

The cooperation of David Craig Hughart is a sign that authorities may be gathering evidence to target officials further up the Massey hierarchy. Some victims’ families hold Blankenship personally responsible for the worst U.S. mining disaster in four decades, though prosecutors have declined to say who else could face charges in the wide-ranging and continuing probe.

Hughart, former president of a Massey subsidiary that controlled White Buck Coal Co., worked alongside Blankenship for at least 15 years and was named in a federal information filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Beckley. He is cooperating with prosecutors, and U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said Hughart is prepared to plead guilty to two conspiracy charges that carry the possibility of six years in prison.

Both of West Virginia’s U.S. Sens., Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller, commented on the developing investigation.

“I hope and pray that our great state will never again endure a tragedy like the Upper Big Branch deaths, and criminal charges are an important step in bringing those responsible to justice,” Manchin said in a statement. “I have always urged our prosecutors to pursue any individuals who intentionally jeopardized the lives of others. There should be no immunity for anyone who is determined to be responsible in any way for the tragedy at UBB.

“These new revelations show a complete failure by senior management at Massey to put our miners first and absolutely reinforce the pressing need to pass comprehensive mine safety legislation,” Rockefeller said. “Coal mining is an honorable profession; anyone who criminally put profits over people risks lives and tarnishes that honorable work. My bill would specifically hold bad actors fully accountable and increase penalties for these types of flagrant abuses.”

Hughart faces two charges: felony conspiracy to defraud the government by impeding the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and misdemeanor conspiracy to violate mandatory health and safety standards.

Although Upper Big Branch is never directly mentioned in the case against Hughart, Goodwin said the charges come from the investigation of the April 2010 explosion. And the nature of the allegations parallels charges brought against those who were directly involved with UBB.

Prosecutors say Hughart worked with unnamed co-conspirators to ensure miners at White Buck and other, unidentified Massey-owned operations received advance warning about surprise federal inspections many times between 2000 and March 2010.

Those illegal warnings gave workers time to conceal life-threatening violations that could have led to citations, fines and costly shutdowns, authorities say.

Goodwin wouldn’t say who else might be charged or when, but that his investigators are “trying to push forward as quickly as we can.”

Several former federal prosecutors say it wouldn’t be easy to prosecute Blankenship, and that it would require more than just damning testimony from witnesses who may have their own agendas.

Corporations like Massey, since bought out by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources, are typically structured to shield their leaders from liability, experts say. To reach the top, investigators would most likely need hard evidence to match witnesses’ words.

The United Mine Workers of America, which accused Massey of “industrial homicide,” has demanded that Blankenship and 17 other managers who refused to talk to investigators be compelled to testify publicly or cited for contempt. It says those responsible for the disaster must be brought to justice.

Hughart had been president of at least 10 Massey subsidiaries throughout his career, positions that would have required the consent of a CEO whose micromanagement is well-documented.

At Upper Big Branch, for example, Blankenship demanded production reports every 30 minutes.

And last year, Blankenship acknowledged during a deposition for an unrelated lawsuit that his employees had sometimes found cans of Dad’s root beer on their desks: Dad’s, he told the attorney questioning him, stood for “Do as Don says.”

Neither Blankenship, who retired about eight months after the disaster, nor one of his attorneys responded to emails seeking comment.

Four investigations have concluded that Massey concealed problems at the mine through an elaborate scheme that included sanitized safety-inspection books and an advance-warning system.

Hughart is the third person to face serious criminal charges in connection with Upper Big Branch.

Former UBB superintendent Gary May is also cooperating with prosecutors. He pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge for his actions at the mine and is set to be sentenced in January.

Former Massey security chief Hughie Elbert Stover, meanwhile, is appealing his conviction last fall on charges he lied to investigators and ordered a subordinate to destroy documents.

Stover was sentenced to three years behind bars — one of the stiffest punishments ever handed down in a mine safety case — but has been free pending appeal. Witnesses testified that Stover instructed mine guards to send radio alerts whenever inspectors entered the property. He’s denied any wrongdoing.

The explosion at Upper Big Branch was sparked by worn teeth on a cutting machine, and fueled by methane and coal dust. It was allowed to propagate by clogged and broken water sprayers. The force of the blast traveled miles of underground corridors, killing men instantly.

Goodwin’s office negotiated a $210 million agreement with Alpha to settle past violations at UBB and other Massey mines, protecting the company from criminal prosecution.

“(This) news is a big milestone in the Upper Big Branch investigation, and I commend U.S. Attorney Goodwin and his team for working diligently to find those responsible for this tragedy and bring them to justice,” Rockefeller said.

“Anyone who puts production and profits before safety should be held accountable and brought to justice to the fullest extent of the law,” Manchin said. “I applaud the efforts of the U.S. Attorney’s office to get to bottom of the wrongdoing in this case. I will continue to monitor developments with respect to today’s charges, as well as the continuing investigation.

“What this horrible tragedy reminded all of us is this: every worker should know that when they kiss their children goodbye in the morning that they will return home at the end of the day to kiss them goodnight.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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