By Wendy Holdren
A Crab Orchard man who pleaded guilty Thursday to two federal mine safety charges also implicated former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship and others in what appears to have been a widespread corporate practice of warning coal miners and mine bosses about surprise inspections.
David Hughart, 54, the former president of Massey Energy’s White Buck Coal Co., admitted to U.S. District Court Judge Irene Berger that he conspired to impede the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and conspired to violate mine health and safety laws.
He also indicated that higher ranking officials, including Blankenship, as well as lower ranking individuals, such as superintendents and mine foremen, took part in an agreement to give underground mine crews prior notification of MSHA inspectors arriving at the mine sites.
“I condoned it. I knew it was happening and I allowed it,” Hughart said.
Hughart spoke so softly that those in the Beckley courtroom struggled to hear him say he had no hesitation about pleading guilty.
Berger asked Hughart if such warnings were company policy and, if so, who ordered it.
“The chief executive officer,” Hughart replied.
He admitted that he and other officials and employees had been giving prior notice about MSHA inspections for approximately 12 years. He said he knew they had been violating laws about health and safety standards for eight to 10 years.
The charges against Hughart grew from federal prosecutors’ continuing investigation of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in western Raleigh County, a 2010 explosion that killed 29 Massey miners, and could bolster other criminal cases they might be building.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin refused to comment on the direction of his investigation, but Hughart’s testimony was the latest signal that he could be working his way up the ladder to what experts say would be a rare prosecution of a major corporate executive.
Blankenship’s attorney, William Taylor, said his client has done nothing wrong.
“Don Blankenship did not conspire with anybody to do anything illegal or improper. To the contrary, Don took every possible step to make the mines under his responsibility safer,” he said in an e-mail.
“We are not particularly concerned about Mr. Hughart’s statement,” Taylor added. “It is not surprising that people embellish or say untrue things when they are attempting to reduce a possible prison sentence.”
Though Hughart did not mentioned Blankenship by name in court, outside the courtroom, his wife confirmed that’s who her husband meant.
“Don called the office and at home,” Karen Hughart said, adding that her husband has been threatened several times in his career.
“Anyone that did not comply was threatened. We lived under fear.”
By pleading guilty, Hughart faces a maximum of six years in prison and a fine of up to $350,000. He will be sentenced June 25 at 1:30 p.m. by Judge Berger.
He was the former president of Massey’s Green Valley Resource Group in Nicholas County and he is the highest-ranking official charged to date in the ongoing investigation.
Neither Hughart nor attorney Michael Whitt commented after the hearing. But Hughart’s son, Jonathan, said he wants to see Blankenship in court.
“Don Blankenship is a very powerful person,” he said. “He won’t see a day in prison. I promise you that.”
Gary Quarles, who lost son Gary Wayne in the blast, said Hughart’s comment bolsters that hope. Though he was mildly surprised Hughart agreed to roll over on his former boss, Quarles said he hopes others will do the same “because that’s the cat I want.”
Others are also responsible for his son’s death, but Quarles said Blankenship must be held accountable above all.
“It’s just a matter of time,” he told The Associated Press by phone. “... I want him to know he can be had. His money can’t get him out of everything.”
Hughart is currently free on an unsecured bond of $10,000.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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