David Hughart, a former Massey Energy official, was sentenced Sept. 10 to 42 months in jail after pleading guilty to two federal charges: Conspiracy to impede the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and conspiracy to violate mine health and safety laws.
Hughart is one of several Massey Energy employees who have been sentenced to prison for violating federal mining safety and health standards and for warning mine operators when MSHA inspections were going to occur. These violations contributed to the April 5, 2010 fire and explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine that killed 29 miners.
Hughart did not work at Upper Big Branch, and his plea deal involved crimes he has admitted committing 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.
U.S. District Judge Irene Berger sentenced Hughart to a year longer than the 24- to 30-month sentence recommended by federal guidelines because of the safety risk to the miners created by his crimes and to send a message to other mine operators not to cut corners when the lives of miners are at stake. “This sentence will promote respect for the law,” Berger said at sentencing.
Hughart, 54, of Crab Orchard, W. Va., is the former president of Massey’s Green Valley Resource Group and the highest-ranking official to be convicted in the ongoing federal investigation.
“Mine safety laws exist to protect the health and safety of coal miners. When those laws are broken, miners' lives are put in danger. That's absolutely intolerable," said U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin. "This prosecution reiterates the message that mine safety laws are never, ever optional."
Hughart admitted that he and others at Massey conspired to violate health and safety laws and to conceal those violations by warning mining operations when MSHA inspectors were arriving to conduct mine inspections. Hughart cooperated with prosecutors as part of a plea deal and implicated former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship in the conspiracy to impede MSHA inspections and investigations and violate federal mine safety and health regulations.
Blankenship has denied the claims, saying Hughart was fired with cause from Massey for drug use and theft from the company. In fact, Hughart was arrested on Aug. 30 on charges of possession of painkillers and anti-anxiety medication without a valid prescription.
Former Upper Big Branch miner Thomas Harrah was sentenced to 10 months in jail by Berger in September 2010 after he pled guilty to faking a foreman’s license when he performed key mine safety examinations at the mine between January 2008 and August 2009 and to then lying to investigators about it.
Hughie Elbert Stover, the former security chief at the Upper Big Branch, was sentenced Feb. 29, 2012 to 3 years in prison, 2 years’ probation and a $20,000 fine by Berger. Stover was convicted of two felonies: making a false statement and obstructing the government probe of the mine disaster.
Stover made materially false statements to an FBI special agent and a special investigator for MSHA. The agents were investigating allegations that security guards at the Upper Big Branch routinely notified mine personnel when MHSA inspectors arrived at the mine. Stover falsely denied that such a practice existed and falsely told the agents that he would have fired any security guard who provided such advance notice. In addition, Stover himself instructed mine security guards to notify mine personnel whenever MSHA inspectors arrived at the mine. Stover also caused another Massey employee to dispose of thousands of pages of security-related documents stored in a Massey building near the mine, with the intent to impede the federal investigation.
On Jan. 17, 2013, Berger sentenced Upper Big Branch superintendent Gary May to 21 months in prison after he pleaded guilty in March 2012 to conspiracy to impede MSHA’s enforcement efforts at the Upper Big Branch between February 2008 and April 5, 2010.
May admitted that he and others conspired to impede MSHA in administering and enforcing mine health and safety laws at the mine. He acknowledged giving advance warning of MSHA inspections, often using code phrases to avoid detection. May also admitted to concealing health and safety violations when he knew inspections were imminent. The violations concealed included poor airflow in the mine; piles of loose, combustible coal; and scarcities of rock dust, which prevents mine explosions. May further acknowledged that he ordered a mine examination book to be falsified. He also said he told miners to rewire the methane gas detector on a piece of mine equipment so the equipment could run illegally.