MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Federal prosecutors investigating the West Virginia mine explosion that killed 29 men widened their net Wednesday, filing 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.
Several former federal prosecutors say it wouldn’t be easy to prosecute Blankenship, and 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 are structured to shield their leaders from liability, the experts say. To reach the top, investigators would most likely need hard evidence to match witnesses’ words.
Either that, says former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey of Miami, or they’ll need multiple witnesses.
“If the star witness has a supporting cast,” he said, “it can be a compelling basis for conviction.”
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.
Hughart’s phone has been disconnected, and his attorney didn’t immediately comment.
Although Upper Big Branch is never directly mentioned in the case against Hughart, Goodwin said the charges stem 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.
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.
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.”
Hughart has 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 UBB disaster, nor one of his attorneys responded to an email seeking comment.
Four investigations have concluded that Massey concealed problems at UBB through an elaborate scheme that included sanitized safety-inspection books and an advance-warning system.
The United Mine Workers of America, which accused Massey of “industrial homicide,” has demanded that Blankenship and 17 other Massey 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.
But David Weinstein, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Miami who now heads the white-collar litigation practice of a private law firm, said corroboration would be critical to prosecuting Blankenship.
“They are going to need documents,” he said. “The real linchpin of their prosecution is being able to prove the CEO or some other officer or director actively participated in what was going on.”
Absent direct proof, Weinstein said, prosecutors would have to demonstrate “willful blindness” to matters of safety.