An executive who ran several Massey Energy coal companies and worked closely with former CEO Don Blankenship faces criminal conspiracy charges and is cooperating with federal prosecutors, according to a report from The Associated Press.
David Craig Hughart, president of a Massey subsidiary that controlled White Buck Coal Co., is named in a federal information document — which signals a defendant is cooperating — filed Nov. 28 in U.S. District Court in Beckley, WV. The Associated Press reported that this could be a sign that authorities may be targeting Blankenship himself in the fatal West Virginia blast that was the nation’s worst mine disaster in four decades.
Upper Big Branch is never directly mentioned in the document, however, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin told The Associated Press the charges come from his team’s continuing and wide-ranging investigation of the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 men at the southern West Virginia mine
Massey was bought after the disaster by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources, which announced this past spring it was sealing the mine permanently.
The court document accuses Hughart of working with “known and unknown” co-conspirators to ensure that miners underground at White Buck and other, unidentified Massey-owned operations received advance warning about surprise federal inspections “on many occasions and various dates” between 2000 and March 2010.
Four investigations have concluded that Massey systematically covered up problems at the mine through an elaborate scheme that included sanitized safety-inspection books and an advance-warning system.
Hughart could be the link prosecutors need to go up the Massey food chain.
He’s been president of at least 10 Massey subsidiaries throughout his career, positions that would have required the consent of Blankenship who demanded production reports every 30 minutes from the UBB Mine, according to The Associated Press.
Investigators say that at other Massey mines, Hughart colluded with others to violate laws requiring adequate ventilation, the removal of explosive coal dust and the application of pulverized limestone to prevent explosions.
Hughart has agreed to plead guilty to two charges: felony conspiracy to defraud the federal government by impeding the actions of MSHA, and misdemeanor conspiracy to violate mandatory health and safety standards. The felony charge carries a possible sentence of five years in prison, Goodwin said. The misdemeanor carries up to one year.
He wouldn’t say who else might be charged or when. His investigators are “trying to push forward as quickly as we can,” Goodwin said, but he said that developing the necessary evidence means obtaining the cooperation of people like Hughart.
Hughart is the third person to face serious criminal charges in the mine-blast investigation.
A memo suggesting Blankenship regularly ordered underlings to put profits before safety emerged during a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the widows of two men killed in a 2006 fire at Massey's Aracoma Coal Alma No. 1 mine. The memo told workers that if their bosses asked them to build roof supports or perform similar safety-related tasks, “ignore them and run coal.”
“This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills,” it said.
Massey settled that lawsuit for undisclosed terms, and Aracoma paid $4.2 million in civil and criminal penalties.