BECKLEY, W.Va. -- A former Massey Energy official who is cooperating with prosecutors on Thursday implicated the company's former chief executive officer, Don Blankenship, in a decade-long conspiracy to hide safety violations from federal inspectors.
Former Massey official David C. Hughart pleaded guilty to two federal criminal charges that he plotted with other company officials to routinely violate safety standards and then cover up the resulting workplace hazards.
But a fairly routine plea hearing here took a surprising twist when U.S. District Judge Irene Berger pressed Hughart to name his co-conspirators and Hughart responded, "the chief executive officer."
Hughart did not use Blankenship's name, but Blankenship was CEO of Massey from 2000 until 2010, during the period when the crimes Hughart admitted to committing occurred.
In a nearly three-year investigation that started with the deaths of 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster and has so far prompted four convictions, the accusation by Hughart is the first courtroom statement to specifically allege any wrongdoing by Blankenship.
William Taylor, a lawyer for Blankenship, said his client has done nothing wrong and downplayed the significance of what Hughart said.
"We were quite surprised at the reports of Mr. Hughart's statements at the time of his guilty plea," Taylor said. "Don Blankenship did not conspire with anybody to do anything illegal or improper. To the contrary, he did everything he could to make Massey's mines safe.
"We're not concerned particularly about the story concerning Mr. Hughart," Taylor said. "It's not surprising that people say untrue things when they are trying to reduce a possible prison sentence."
When he's sentenced on June 25, Hughart, 54, of Crab Orchard, faces up to six years in prison and a fine of up to $350,000. In a deal with prosecutors, Hughart pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to defraud the government by thwarting U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration inspections and one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to violate MSHA safety standards. Hughart also agreed to cooperate with authorities in the ongoing criminal investigation of the mine disaster and broader questions about Massey safety practices.
"Guilty of both charges," Hughart told Berger when the judge asked him to enter his formal plea.
Hughart did not work at Upper Big Branch, and his plea deal involved crimes he has admitted committing between 2000 and 2010 at Massey's White Buck operations in Nicholas County, where two mid-level foremen and a Massey operating subsidiary were prosecuted five years ago for criminal safety violations.
Prosecutors identified Hughart as having served as president of Massey's Green Valley "resource group," which included White Buck. But Hughart also worked for Massey for more than 20 years, serving as an officer or a director at more than two-dozen subsidiaries, according to public records.
Hughart was fired in March 2010, and internal Massey records, filed in a circuit court case, allege he had failed a random drug test and received kickbacks from a Massey contractor.
In court documents in Hughart's case, prosecutors alleged a broader conspiracy by unnamed "directors, officers, and agents" of Massey operating companies to put coal production ahead of worker safety and health at "other coal mines owned by Massey." Those documents, filed in late November, were the first time in their Upper Big Branch probe that prosecutors have formally alleged Massey officials engaged in a scheme that went beyond the Raleigh County mine that exploded on April 5, 2010, and killed 29 workers.
Prosecutors allege that mine safety and health laws were routinely violated at the White Buck mines and other Massey operations, in part because of "a belief that consistently following those laws would decrease coal production."
Among the safety standards violated, prosecutors said, were those governing mine ventilation and control of explosive coal dust.