The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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September 10, 2013

Hughart sentenced to 3-1/2 for inspection advance warnings

A former Massey Energy executive who pleaded guilty Feb. 28 to giving illegal, advance warning to miners between 2000 and 2010 that federal safety inspectors were conducting surprise inspections will serve three and half years in prison, followed by three years of probation, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger ruled Tuesday.

David C. Hughart, 53, faced six years and up to $350,000 in fines under the strictest sentencing guidelines, but Berger said the sentence she ordered is strong enough to deter others from conduct “that could result in deaths of many” while taking into consideration the fact that Hughart until recently had no criminal history.

Hughart’s crimes came to light during a federal investigation into the deaths of 29 miners in an explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine in April 2010, although Hughart did not work at UBB. He was president of White Buck Coal Co. in Nicholas County, a Massey Energy subsidiary that operated under the umbrella of Green Valley Resources Group.

He is the highest-ranking Massey employee to be indicted since the investigation began.

Hughart apologized to the court prior to receiving Berger’s sentence.

“I’m sorry for what I’ve done in the past,” he said.

He stated that he’d began working in the mines as a “kid of 18 or 19 years old” and had never thought there was anything wrong with giving miners advance warning that inspectors were coming.

“You always heard when mine inspectors came underground,” he said softly. “I kind of accepted that as a practice.

“It was a very common practice I was raised with,” he said, adding it was like “learning to tie your shoes.”

He said the notice wasn’t “to cover up anything,” but to “to keep people doing their job correct.”

Hughart and others put hundreds of lives at risk over the years through their actions, since investigators were on site to check for situations that could lead to fires, explosions and unsafe health conditions, Berger said.

In February, Hughart told Berger that “the chief executive officer” had ordered the advance warnings as company policy.

Don Blankenship was chief executive officer at the time of the UBB explosion and when Hughart gave the warnings.

Hughart’s son, Jonathan Hughart, said Tuesday that he would like to see U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin prosecute Blankenship, who so far has not faced criminal charges.

“Don Blankenship is a very powerful person, and his influence had a whole lot to do with my father’s job,” said Jonathan, who is the oldest of Hughart’s three sons. “My father was always in fear of losing his job.

“He was the longest-lasting president that worked for Don Blankenship.

“I would like to see him here, rather than my father,” he added. “I believe his money and his power has kept him out of the courtroom.”

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.”

Although he never worked at UBB, Hughart is cooperating in an ongoing Department of Justice probe of the explosion.

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 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.”

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.

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Around one hour and 15 minutes prior to the sentencing hearing, Magistrate R. Clarke VanDervort had ruled in federal court to revoke Hughart’s bond for an arrest on drug charges.

Hughart was charged Aug. 30 with two counts of possession of a controlled substance, oxycodone and the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam.

He was driving erratically at the time of his arrest, according to statements made in court.

Hughart’s attorney, Michael Whitt, had asked VanDervort to allow Hughart to remain free on bond.

Goodwin and Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby said Hughart could not prove that he would not be a threat to society if he were released on bond and asked that he be detained.

But since Berger would be sentencing Hughart on the conspiracy charges later in the afternoon, Ruby said, the attorneys would leave it “at the discretion of the court.”

VanDervort ruled that Hughart’s $10,000 bond revoked and he was turned over to U.S. Marshals after his sentencing.

VanDervort added that if Berger ruled Hughart could self-report on the conspiracy charges, the bond revocation ruling may be modified.

Whitt told Berger that Hughart had been prescribed oxycodone for back pain and was also prescribed alprazolam after he was fired from his job and began to experience anxiety about providing for his family.

The milligram dosages of the pills discovered in his vehicle, however, were not the same as those prescribed to him.

Berger did not impose a fine since no victim was identified by the court, except for a minimal assessment cost already paid by Hughart.

Berger also ruled that Hughart must undergo mental evaluation and substance abuse counseling, must submit to drug tests while on probation and that he could serve the prison term at a facility close to his family.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

— E-mail: jfarrish@register-herald.com

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