By Bruce Schreiner and Vicki Smith
A former Massey Energy executive who admitted he conspired in an illegal advance-warning scheme at West Virginia coal mines was ordered Tuesday to spend 3 1/2 years behind bars for his role in undermining both federal safety laws and the inspectors charged with enforcing them.
U.S. District Judge Irene Berger sentenced former White Buck Coal Co. president David Hughart on conspiracy charges that grew out of a criminal investigation into the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster. She also ordered him to serve three years’ probation when he finishes his sentence. White Buck was a Massey subsidiary.
“I’m sorry for what I’ve done in the past. I let it happen,” Hughart told the judge. “It was very common practice.”
Though Hughart never worked at Upper Big Branch, he is cooperating in an ongoing Department of Justice probe of the explosion that killed 29 men. Two other men, 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’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.
“He was part of a larger conspiracy, and that is of significant concern to us,” said U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin. “This practice could not have occurred alone. And we’re going to take this investigation wherever it leads, and we’re going to make longstanding change in the safety of our coal mines.”
Hughart has admitted his role in ensuring that miners at other Massey subsidiaries got illegal advance warning of surprise safety inspections, and he implicated Massey CEO Don Blankenship in the conspiracy during his plea hearing earlier this year.
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.
Massey is now owned by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources. Blankenship, who retired ahead of the merger, denies any wrongdoing.
Hughart, shackled at the ankles and wearing an orange jumpsuit, did not mention Blankenship when he spoke to the court Tuesday.
Hughart was fired from White Buck a month before the Upper Big Branch blast after failing a random drug test.
He’d been 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 he had no prescription for either.
He did not contest the drug charges in court. Magistrate Clarke VanDervort revoked Hughart’s $10,000 bond, and Hughart was turned over to U.S. marshals after his sentencing.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby acknowledged the drug offenses could affect Hughart’s credibility as a witness as the government builds its case.
Gary Quarles, whose son Gary Wayne died at Upper Big Branch, said that whether advance warning was common practice or not, Hughart knew it was illegal and should have stopped it.
But rather than watch people go to jail for that, Quarles wants to see indictments of the Massey executives directly responsible for conditions at his son’s mine.
“I still got my hopes,” he said after the sentencing. “I’m willing to wait, as long as it takes. And then slam the door on it.”
Jonathan Hughart, 32, said the wrong man was in the courtroom.
“It should be Don Blankenship,” he said. “Don Blankenship was a very strong influence on my father. He was always in fear of losing his job.”
Upper Big Branch was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years.
Four investigations 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. Managers even maintained two sets of pre-shift inspection books — an accurate one for themselves, and a sanitized one for regulators.
The prosecutor noted that while Hughart had faced a possible six years under the law, Berger imposed a sentence that was one year longer than federal sentencing guidelines recommended. The judge said she wanted to send a message to other operators in the coalfields, and Goodwin said Hughart’s sentence does that.
“It should send a very clear message that if you give advance notice of mine inspections, if you play with miners’ lives there will be significant consequences,” he said.
In June, Hughart’s lawyers argued that he’d been unfairly linked to the disaster and asked the court for leniency in sentencing.
Defense attorney Michael Whitt said Tuesday his client has lost his income and his home.
“He went from having a high-paying job ... to essentially being destitute,” he said, “and that’s where he is now.”
Hughart never contested his crimes but said none of his actions “can be linked to any actual mining injury.”