Ex-Massey CEO Blankenship implicated in inspection warnings
BECKLEY, W.Va. — The chief executive at the time of a deadly West Virginia mine explosion was implicated by a former longtime subordinate on Thursday of ordering a widespread corporate practice of warning coal miners about surprise federal inspections.
A former president of a Massey Energy subsidiary made the allegation as he pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges and as federal investigators have signaled they are working their way up the ladder to what experts say would be a rare prosecution of a major corporate executive.
Former White Buck Coal Co. President David Hughart admitted in federal court to working with others to ensure that miners at his company and other Massey mines got advance warning about inspections between 2000 and March 2010.
When asked by Judge Irene Berger if such warnings were company policy and, if so, who ordered it, Hughart said “the chief executive officer.” Though he was not mentioned by name in court, Don Blankenship was Massey CEO at the time. Outside the courtroom, Karen Hughart confirmed that's whom her husband meant.
“Don called the office and at home,” she said, adding that her husband has been threatened several times in his career. “Anyone that did not comply was threatened. We lived under fear.”
The charges against Hughart grew from federal prosecutors' continuing investigation of the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 workers. 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 to the top.
Blankenship 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 email.
“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.”
Hughart is the highest-ranking Massey employee involved in a criminal case since the investigation began. A former Upper Big Branch superintendent pleaded guilty to charges he defrauded the government through his actions at the mine and was recently sentenced to 21 months in prison.
Hughart faces up to six years in prison and a $350,000 fine when sentenced June 25.
Blankenship retired about eight months after the nation's worst coal mining disaster in four decades, and several victims' relatives have demanded he be prosecuted.