BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) — A former Massey Energy executive who acknowledged he conspired in an illegal advance-warning scheme at West Virginia coal mines was ordered Tuesday to spend 3½ 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 Coal 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.
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 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 Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby said he would move to have Hughart immediately detained upon sentencing.
That decision pleased Gary Quarles, whose son Gary Wayne, died at Upper Big Branch.
“He should go to jail today. I don’t think there should be a waiting period,” Quarles said. “He’s had long enough.”
But Quarles wants to see more people behind bars — not for advance warnings — but for their role in the disaster that took his son.
“We need people to go to jail for the explosion that killed 29 good, innocent men,” he said. “That’s what I’m looking for.”
Jonathan Hughart, 32, said his father is still cooperating with federal prosecutors but 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.
Hughart had faced up to six years under the law. His lawyers argued in June that he’d been unfairly linked to the disaster and asked the court for leniency in sentencing. They said his life had been ruined by the “terrible negativity” and publicity surrounding his case.
Hughart never contested his crimes but said none of his actions “can be linked to any actual mining injury.”
Prosecutors, however, argued for a stiffer sentence because the conspiracy endangered miners’ lives.