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Ex-ally implicates Massey CEO in W.Va. mine case

Thursday - 2/28/2013, 4:13pm  ET

FILE -In this Thursday, July 22, 2010 file photo, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Massey Energy Company Don Blankenship speaks at the National Press Club in Washington. David Hughart, a former president of a Massey Energy subsidiary implicated the company's chief executive officer in safety violations as he pleaded guilty Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, to charges resulting from an investigation into the 2010 explosion at a Massey mine that killed 29 men. The CEO at the time, Don Blankenship, was not mentioned by name. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

JOHN RABY
Associated Press

BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) -- A longtime subordinate of ex-Massey Energy chief Don Blankenship publicly implicated his boss for the first time Thursday in what was appears to be a widespread corporate practice of warning coal miners about surprise inspections.

At a federal hearing in which he pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy, former White Buck Coal Co. president David Hughart pointed to Blankenship. The charges against Hughart grew from federal prosecutors' continuing investigation of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, 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 attorney William Taylor, however, 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, 54, was accused of working with others to ensure miners at White Buck and other Massey subsidiaries got advance warning about federal inspections between 2000 and March 2010. Such warnings let miners and managers conceal potentially deadly conditions that could lead to a shutdown in production.

Hughart spoke so softly that those in the courtroom struggled to hear him say he had no hesitation about pleading guilty.

"I allowed ... it to happen," he said. "I was responsible for the operation."

Judge Irene Berger asked Hughart if such warnings were company policy and, if so, who ordered it.

"The chief executive officer," Hughart replied.

Though he was not mentioned by name in court, Blankenship was CEO at the time. And outside the courtroom, Karen Hughart confirmed that's who 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."

Hughart is the highest-ranking Massey employee involved in a criminal case since the investigation began. He faces up to six years in prison and a $350,000 fine when sentenced June 25. A former Upper Big Branch superintendent was recently sentenced to 21 months in prison after pleading guilty to charges he defrauded the government through his actions at the mine.

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.

Gary Quarles, who lost son Gary Wayne, 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."

Blankenship has been re-emerging as a public figure over the past year, launching a website where he shares his thoughts and calls the day the mine near Montcoal exploded one of the worst of his life.

Those in West Virginia's coalfields hold Blankenship personally responsible, accusing him of putting profits before people throughout his long career as a union-busting operator.

Multiple investigations found the Upper Big Branch blast was caused by blatant disregard of federal safety laws, and Blankenship had a well-documented record of micromanaging his mines.

But when Hughart was charged last fall, several former federal prosecutors told the AP it won't be easy to prosecute Blankenship, and it will require more than just damning testimony from witnesses who may have their own agendas.

Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney in Miami, said prosecutions of financial fraud have been more successful, but in fatal safety cases it's sometimes difficult to prove a crime was committed.

"It's historically been difficult to move to the top of the pyramid. Typically a chairman or CEO has multiple layers and relatively few fingerprints on the operational issues that directly cause a tragedy," Coffey said.

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