Illegal coal mine inspection practices and prescription drug abuse – two of West Virginia’s greatest plagues, paired with poor personal choices, cause the downfall of Massey Energy executive.
David Hughart, a former Massey Energy executive who conspired with others in an illegal advance-warning scheme at West Virginia coal mines was ordered on September 10, 2013 to spend 3½ years behind bars for his role in undermining federal safety laws and the inspectors charged with enforcing them. Hughart is the highest coal official to date to be charged in a mine disaster investigation.
U.S. District Judge Irene Berger sentenced David Hughart on conspiracy charges that grew out of a criminal investigation into the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 men in southern West Virginia. Berger also ordered Hughart to three years’ probation once he completes his sentence.
“I’m sorry for what I’ve done in the past. I let it happen,” said Hughart, a former president of a Massey subsidiary, White Buck Coal Co.
History of Dangerous Coal Mine Inspection Practices
West Virginia coal miners are among the hardest working professionals in America. Despite strong MSHA regulations, coal mining continues to be one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. Every year, miners are injured or killed because the coal operators continue to circumvent or violate safety laws for the protection of the miners.
Four investigations into Upper Big Branch found that worn and broken cutting equipment created a spark that ignited accumulations of coal dust and methane gas. Broken and clogged water sprayers allowed what should have been a minor flare-up to become an inferno.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said the root cause was Massey’s “systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts” to conceal life-threatening problems. MSHA said managers even maintained two sets of pre-shift inspection books – an accurate one for themselves, and a sanitized one for regulators.
Hughart’s lawyers argued in June that he’d been unfairly linked to the disaster and asked the court for leniency in sentencing. Hughart never contested his crimes but said none of his actions “can be linked to any actual mining injury.”
Prosecutors, however, argued for a stiffer sentence, saying the conspiracy endangered miners’ lives.
Prescription Drug Abuse
A few hours before his sentencing, Hughart appeared in federal court, where he had his bond revoked because of drug charges. According to a Sept. 5 petition for action on conditions of pretrial release, Hughart was arrested and charged with possession of alprazolam and oxycodone without a valid prescription.
Hughart was fired from White Buck a month before the Upper Big Branch blast after failing a random drug test.
He was in court earlier Tuesday for a bond-revocation hearing following a recent arrest on drug charges. Federal probation officials said he was caught Aug. 30 in Beckley with the painkiller oxycodone and the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam, but had no prescription for either.
He did not contest the drug charges in court, and Magistrate Clarke VanDervort revoked Hughart’s $10,000 bond.
In addition to his 42-month sentence, Hughart also was ordered to serve four years of supervised release – three years for the first count and one year for the second. U.S. District Judge Irene Berger did not fine him.
Hughart, who served as the former president of Massey Energy’s Green Valley Resource Group, pleaded guilty to conspiring to impede MSHA inspectors and conspiracy to violate mine health and safety laws.
In the sentencing hearing, Hughart’s attorney Michael Whitt asked the judge for a lesser sentence, saying Hughart didn’t need a prison sentence to show him his life had been ruined.
“He went from doing a job making $100,000 to becoming destitute,” Whitt said, noting Hughart lost his house and has no income.
Illegal Inspection Warnings a Common Practice in Mining
In a previous hearing, Hughart admitted that there was a practice and policy of pre-notification of inspectors when inspectors were on the property between higher-up officials and lower officials.
“Please understand that I started in mining as an 18-year-old and we always heard about inspectors,” Hughart said. “I grew up that way.” Hughart said Tuesday that giving advance warnings was a “very common practice,” as common as learning to tie shoelaces as a child.
Several investigations found miners at Upper Big Branch routinely got illegal advance warnings, giving them time to temporarily fix or disguise potentially deadly conditions underground.
When Berger asked who these higher-up people were, Hughart responded that it was the chief executive officer.
Hughart pleaded guilty to covering up certain mine ventilation and dust control compliance information. Hughart was said to have worked with others to provide advance notification of safety inspections, allowing the concealment of potential hazards to miner health and safety.
After the hearing, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said this sentencing was a “significant step in the investigation,” which Goodwin noted was ongoing.
“It’s particularly of note that the court sentenced him to one year higher than the guideline range,” Goodwin said. “I think this will promote deterrence and keep this from being a longstanding practice. It’s a significant step forward.”
Goodwin said the fact that Hughart is a witness and had his bond revoked was concerning.
“It shows another crisis in the district, drug abuse,” Goodwin said. “This man was making $100,000 at one time and fell prey to this incredible surge.”
Goodwin said the U.S. Attorney’s office will proceed with the investigation.
Department of Justice Investigates Larger Conspiracy in Mining Industry
“Hughart was part of a larger conspiracy,” Goodwin said. “We will take the investigation wherever it leads.”
Though Hughart never worked at Upper Big Branch, he is cooperating in an ongoing Department of Justice probe of the worst U.S. coal mine disaster in decades.
Two others -former Upper Big Branch security chief Hughie Elbert Stover and former superintendent Gary May – are already behind bars for their actions at the now-sealed mine near Montcoal.
Hughart has acknowledged his role in ensuring that miners at other Massey subsidiaries got illegal advance warning of surprise safety inspections, and he had implicated Massey CEO Don Blankenship in the conspiracy during his plea hearing earlier this year.
Massey is now owned by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources. Blankenship, who retired ahead of the merger, denies any wrongdoing.
Hughart’s cooperation signals that federal prosecutors may be working their way up Massey’s corporate ladder, though they have steadfastly refused to comment on their possible targets.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby acknowledged the drug offenses could affect Hughart’s credibility as a witness as the government builds its case.
West Virginia Coal Mine Attorneys
The Robinette Legal Group, PLLC is recognized as one of the region’s most successful coal mining injury litigation firms. Our attorneys understand the regulations and we know how to look beneath the coal dust to find the true cause of the accident and the full extent of your injuries and financial damages that result. We work independently as your attorney or with your workers’ compensation lawyer to seek the full and fair compensation from the insurance company that is liable for damages. Suing a third party for additional damages will not affect your workers’ compensation benefits.
From our offices in Morgantown, our trial attorneys are well situated to represent injured coal miners and their families in coal communities throughout the region. If you have questions, call Jeff Robinette today: 304-594-1800 or after hours, 304-216-6695 or click this link to visit our website.
Source: The State Journal, “David Hughart sentenced to nearly 4 years in prison,” by Andrea Lannom, 9/10/13, http://www.statejournal.com/story/23396067/david-hughart-sentenced-to-nearly-4-years-in-prison