BECKLEY - A former longtime Massey Energy official will spend 3 1/2 years in prison for his admitted role in a decade-long conspiracy to hide safety violations from federal safety inspectors.
David C. Hughart, 54, of Crab Orchard, was sentenced Tuesday afternoon to 42 months in jail and three years of supervised release after he pleaded guilty to two federal charges as part of an ongoing federal probe of Massey's safety practices.
U.S. District Judge Irene Berger ordered Hughart to serve a full year more than the high end of the 24- to 30-month recommended under advisory federal sentencing guidelines. The judge said the stiffer sentence was needed to account for the safety risks Hughart's crimes created and to serve as a warning to other mining officials not to put production before safety.
"This sentence will promote respect for the law," Berger said.
The Hughart sentencing is another step forward as U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and his top assistant, Steve Ruby, continue what is likely the largest criminal investigation of a coal-mine disaster in modern times.
The probe started with the deaths of 29 miners on April 5, 2010, in an explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, and has so far prompted four convictions and expanded well beyond Upper Big Branch.
"We are going to take this investigation wherever it leads," Goodwin told reporters during a brief news conference on the lawn of Beckley's federal courthouse. "I appreciate it has taken some time, but we have been working diligently.
"We think this is a significant step forward for our investigation and for the safety of the miners," Goodwin said.
Hughart is cooperating with prosecutors, having pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to defraud the government by thwarting U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration inspections and one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to violate MSHA standards.
During a plea hearing in February, Hughart had implicated former Massey CEO Don Blankenship in the conspiracy, and Hughart's family has said Hughart is being wrongly scapegoated while Blankenship and other top Massey executives have faced no criminal charges.
"He was a slave to this industry, and Don Blankenship will never see the inside of a courtroom," Hughart's son, Jonathan Hughart, told reporters after Tuesday's sentencing hearing.
Through his lawyer, Blankenship has denied any wrongdoing. And on his blog, Blankenship has said Hughart lied about him and was fired from Massey for drug use and stealing from the company.
Prosecutors have said that former executives and board members of Massey "may be, or may become" targets in the ongoing federal criminal investigation.
Earlier Tuesday, Hughart's $10,000 personal recognizance bond was revoked by U.S. Magistrate Judge R. Clarke VanDervort after Hughart was arrested on Aug. 30 on charges of possession of painkillers and anti-anxiety medication without a valid prescription. Hughart's bond required him to comply with all local, state and federal laws.
Goodwin conceded that the drug charges reduce Hughart's ability to help prosecutors as a courtroom witness, but also said his office has obtained more valuable assistance from other witnesses whose identifies have not yet been made public.
"You want to have all of the witnesses that you can," Goodwin said. "We've identified witnesses who were in a position to know about this."
While Hughart hasn't been convicted of the drug charges, the arrest increased his recommended sentence under federal advisory guidelines by nine months.
Hughart's lawyer, Michael R. Whitt, had urged Berger to issue a lighter sentence, arguing that Hughart's crimes could not be linked to any mining injury - let alone to the Upper Big Branch Disaster - and that his client was caught up in the "corporate culture" at Massey.
Whitt told Berger that Hughart's life has been ruined, with him going from an affluent lifestyle and a six-figure mine official salary to losing his home and becoming essentially destitute.
"I think he has the message already," Whitt said. "He already knows without spending another day in jail."
Prosecutors, though, had asked for a stiff sentence, noting the "risk to human life and health" created by the conspiracies that Hughart participated in at Massey.
"The defendant risked the lives and health of hundreds of coal miners," Ruby told Berger during Tuesday's hearing.
Previously in the Upper Big Branch probe, a former miner at the operation, Thomas Harrah, was sentenced to 10 months in jail after he admitted to faking a foreman's license when he performed key mine safety examinations at the mine between January 2008 and August 2009, and then lied to investigators about his actions.
Berger sentenced a former Upper Big Branch security director, Hughie Elbert Stover, to 36 months in jail after Stover was convicted of two felonies: making a false statement and obstructing the government probe of the mine disaster.
And in January, the judge sentenced former Upper Big Branch superintendent Gary May to 21 months in jail and a $20,000 fine after he pleaded guilty to plotting to skirt safety rules and cover up the resulting hazards.
Last month, May filed court papers seeking to have his sentence vacated, arguing that he had inadequate legal assistance.
Goodwin also previously reached a deal not to prosecute Alpha Natural Resources for any Upper Big Branch criminal liabilities it inherited when it purchased Massey Energy in June 2011.
That deal required the firm to spend $80 million during the next two years on mine safety improvements and create a $48 million mine safety research trust fund. Alpha also agreed to pay $46.5 million in restitution to families of the disaster victims and $35 million to resolve pending Massey safety fines, including $10.8 million levied for violations related to the Upper Big Branch explosion.
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.
Prosecutors identified Hughart as having served as president of Massey's Green Valley "resource group," which included White Buck. But Hughart also worked for Massey for more than 20 years, serving as an officer or a director at more than two-dozen subsidiaries, according to public records.
Hughart was fired in March 2010, and internal Massey records, filed in a circuit court case, allege drug use and kickbacks from a Massey contractor.
Prosecutors allege that mine safety and health laws were routinely violated at the White Buck mines and other Massey operations, in part because of "a belief that consistently following those laws would decrease coal production."
Among the safety standards violated, prosecutors said, were those governing mine ventilation and control of explosive coal dust.
Investigators have said those standards were repeatedly ignored at Upper Big Branch, setting the stage there for a small methane ignition to turn into a huge, coal dust-fueled explosion. And MSHA investigators have cited a Massey practice of providing "advance notice" of government inspections as a key factor in the mine disaster. MSHA investigators said this practice allowed Massey to fix hazards prior to inspections, but avoid more long-term safety improvements or tougher enforcement actions that might have prompted the mine to be closed.
During Tuesday's hearing, Hughart apologized for his actions and told Berger he had learned from his early days as a miner that "advance notice" of inspections was the way things were done.
"I accepted that as the practice, and I understand now it is a serious issue, and it is against the law," Hughart said.
Berger noted previous evidence in the Upper Big Branch cases that suggested MSHA inspectors knew about - and perhaps even cooperated with - mine operators having pre-inspection notice.
"Advance notice was apparently a common practice in the industry," Berger said. "It's difficult to believe that the only people who were unaware of these practices were the MSHA inspectors."
Terry Ellison, whose brother, Steve Harrah, died at Upper Big Branch, attended Tuesday's court proceedings.
"I came for the 29 miners," Ellison said. "I don't want them to be forgotten. There was no reason they should have been killed that day."
Reach Ken Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.
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