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Former UBB worker gets jail for faking license

BECKLEY, W.Va. -- A former employee of Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine was sentenced Thursday to spend 10 months in jail after he admitted faking a foreman's license and lying to investigators looking into the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners at the Raleigh County operation.

U.S. District Judge Irene C. Berger sentenced Thomas Harrah, 46, of Seth for two felony counts that Harrah admitted to as part of a plea agreement with federal prosecutors.

"You potentially put lives at risk," Berger told Harrah during a sentencing hearing in Beckley.

In April, Harrah had pleaded guilty to faking a foreman's license when he performed key mine safety examinations at Upper Big Branch for nearly two years, between January 2008 and August 2009. Harrah also admitted that he initially lied to government agents when he suggested that officials from Massey's Performance Coal Co. subsidiary had helped him obtain a forged foreman's certificate.

"I realize I was wrong," Harrah told the judge. "I'm disappointed with myself."

Harrah was transferred from Upper Big Branch to another Massey mine eight months before the mine disaster, and prosecutors have not alleged that his actions had anything to do with the April 5, 2010, explosion.

But prosecutors and federal mine safety officials have touted Harrah's prosecution as being a result of a broad and complex ongoing criminal probe of the disaster.

"This sentence sends an important and unmistakable message: If you break the law and threaten the lives of coal miners, you should expect prison time," U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said in a press release.

So far, one other person has been charge criminally as part of the Upper Big Branch probe. Hughie Elbert Stover, security director for Performance Coal, was charged with three felony counts alleging he tried to divert government agents investigating the disaster. Stover has pleaded not guilty and trial is scheduled for late October.

Under federal mine safety law, employees with special training and state licenses are required to perform a variety of daily, weekly and other periodic mine safety checks. Companies must keep records of these examinations, and of whatever steps were taken to ensure hazards are corrected before miners go to work.

In recent years, the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training has stepped up its enforcement of West Virginia's licensing requirements for foremen, successfully seeking suspensions of industry employees who lied about having such licenses.

Federal prosecutors and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration have come in after several of those state efforts, and brought federal criminal charges in a handful of cases.

"Falsification of mine examinations risks miner safety and MSHA will continue to aggressively pursue such cases," said MSHA chief Joe Main.

Harrah is the second West Virginia miner to be sentenced to prison in the last three months after pleading guilty to lying about having credentials to perform official mine safety examinations.

In June, U.S. District Chief Judge John Preston Bailey in Elkins sentenced Luke W. Pugh of Jane Lew to one year in jail after Pugh admitted to one felony county that alleged he lied about his credentials during six safety examinations at Carter Roag Coal Co.'s Pleasant Hill Mine in Randolph County in June 2007. Pugh also stipulated that he had lied about having a foreman's certificate when he performed 387 mine safety examinations at the operation between June 2007 and April 2009. Pugh is appealing his sentence.

In two other recent and similar cases -- one in Northern West Virginia and another in the state's southern coalfields -- mine workers received probation after pleading guilty to faking foreman credentials.

Bailey sentenced Chad J. Ferrell of Nettie to five years probation after he admitted lying on nearly 500 occasions about his lack of a foreman's license at Alpha Natural Resources' Poplar Ridge No. 1 Deep Mine in Webster County. U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers sentenced Neil A. Hasen of Alkol to three years probation after Hasen admitted to lying about his qualifications on more than two dozen occasions at Big River Mining's Broad Run Mine in Mason County.

State officials have stripped miners' licenses from two other Massey workers, Craig Belcher and Scott Jeffrey, after alleging they used forged foreman's licenses. No criminal charges have been brought against Belcher or Jeffrey.

In the Harrah case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Blaire Malkin had urged Berger to sentence Harrah to some jail time, arguing that the charges Harrah admitted to were very serious.

"The heart of both of these offenses is dishonesty," Malkin said during Thursday's hearing. "He lied for almost two years. That put at risk the lives of the men who worked for him."

Then once caught, Malkin said, Harrah initially lied to government investigators about his actions. Malkin urged Berger to "send a message" to the coal industry "that this kind of activity will be taken very seriously by the United States."

Harrah's lawyer, federal public defender Mary Lou Newberger, noted the sentences of probation given to other miners in similar cases.

Newberger also noted that five foremen from Massey's Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine avoided jail in deals that allowed them to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges. All five admitted to not conducting required evacuation drills at the mine, where two workers died when they became lost trying to escape a January 2006 fire.

"If the supervisors when deaths occur got probation, how can someone get prison time if there were no deaths?" Newberger wrote in a court filing. "To promote respect for the law, and to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities among similarly situated defendants, we ask that Mr. Harrah also receive probation."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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