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Security chief at UBB seeks no jail time

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A former Massey Energy security chief convicted of obstructing the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster investigation should not have to go to jail, his defense lawyer is telling a federal judge.

Hughie Elbert Stover is "a sixty-year-old veteran, a community and family man who has been employed his entire life and presents no threat," defense lawyer Bill Wilmoth said in papers filed with U.S. District Judge Irene Berger.

In October, a federal jury convicted Stover of two felonies: making a false statement and obstructing justice. Jurors concluded that Stover lied to investigators and then tried to destroy evidence about Massey's practice of warning underground workers when federal inspectors arrived at Upper Big Branch.

By statute, Stover could face a maximum of 25 years in prison. Federal sentencing guidelines, which judges can follow or ignore, recommend a sentence of between 33 and 41 months.

Sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 29 in federal court in Beckley.

On Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin urged Berger to depart from the guidelines and send Stover to jail for the maximum 25-year sentence. Goodwin argued that Stover's actions played a major role in causing the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 coal miners.

In a seven-page sentencing memorandum filed Tuesday, prosecutors said the miners died "in part" because of a system of inspection warnings Stover helped to coordinate. They said Stover later "acted to sabotage" the largest mine disaster probe in a generation.

But Wilmoth wrote that Stover was innocent, having been trapped by "either inartfully vague or deliberately obtuse" questions from investigators. Wilmoth also argued that the crimes he was charged with had nothing to do with the mine disaster.

"The tragedy at UBB in April 2010 will live large in the hearts and minds of West Virginians forever as a terrible event," Wilmoth wrote. "The actions for which Elbert Stover was convicted, however, occurred much later, from August 2010 to January 2011, and were wholly unrelated to the cause of the explosion.

"In no way should the nature and circumstances of the UBB tragedy be weighed in considering sentence in this case, and they do not support a term of incarceration."

Wilmoth wrote that Stover grew up very poor and "was beaten as a child by his stepfather." He served two years in the Marines, and then two more years in the Navy, Wilmoth said.

"He has no history of criminal activity, and he has no history of substance abuse," Wilmoth wrote. "He does, however, have a long and consistent history of gainful work in law enforcement and security at coal mines."

Wilmoth said Stover "continues to play a positive role in his family and in society," volunteering at a local fire station and being part of his four granddaughters' lives.

"Elbert Stover poses no threat to anyone, and his history as a law-abiding, contributing family man and member of society factors against a term of incarceration," Wilmoth wrote.

Goodwin asked Berger to make Stover an example to the coal industry.

In their legal memo, prosecutors explain that, "longstanding conventional wisdom holds that the federal government cares little about mine safety crimes.

"This case has the potential to upend that assumption and foster broad deterrence in an industry that is closely monitoring the outcome here," Goodwin wrote. "A sentence consistent with the magnitude of defendant's conduct and its consequences will send a resounding message: Gambling with coal miners' lives risks the most severe punishment available under the law."

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


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