Federal investigators have moved methodically in their criminal investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. So far, four people have pleaded guilty or been convicted as a result of the U.S. Attorney’s investigation following the 2010 explosion at the Raleigh County mine that killed 29 miners.
Thursday, the highest ranking former Massey official to be charged so far, operator David Hughart, appeared in federal court in Beckley to plead guilty to routinely violating health and safety laws at Massey’s Green Valley resource group in Nicholas County to increase production.
But there was a twist during the otherwise routine proceedings that caught everyone, including federal prosecutors, by surprise.
When asked by Judge Irene Berger to identify others who conspired with him, Hughart said “the chief executive officer.” Hughart did not mention him by name, but the CEO of Massey during Hughart’s tenure with the company was Don Blankenship.
The Charleston Gazette quoted Hughart’s wife, Karen, as saying after the hearing that “Don Blankenship is the reason we’re here today. My husband was told he would be blackballed from the coal industry if he didn’t go along.”
Blankenship’s attorney, William Taylor, told the Gazette, “We are quite surprised at the reports of Mr. Hughart’s statements at the time of his guilty plea. Mr. Blankenship did not do anything illegal or improper. To the contrary, he did everything he could to make Massey’s mines safe.”
Federal investigators won’t say publicly whether they are trying to get to Blankenship. U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin continues to make only general comments. “This is a significant step forward,” Goodwin told me last year when Hughart was charged. “This is not the end of the investigation.”
But how far up the ladder can or will investigators go? Hughart’s comment, if true, hints at what the U.S. Attorney’s office is trying to find out: was there a corporate culture at Massey, including UBB, where upper management pushed operators to skirt safety laws to keep production levels high?
United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, long a Blankenship adversary, saw significant meaning in Hughart’s statement.
“Finally there is a witness to Blankenship’s misdeeds who will step forward and tell what he knows. Hopefully more will follow suit,” Roberts said. “If the investigation into the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch Mine is to be complete, Don Blankenship’s indictment – and then conviction – is the only possible outcome.”
However, it’s not enough to have Hughart off-handedly implicate Blankenship. Hughart is now a convicted felon who was fired by Massey, so his credibility is questionable at best.
Meanwhile, Goodwin says Hughart continues to cooperate with investigators, who seem content to methodically chip away at the case.