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Sentencing delayed for Massey official

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A federal judge has delayed the sentencing of a former Massey Energy official who pleaded guilty to mine safety violations and is cooperating in the criminal investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

David C. Hughart had been scheduled to be sentenced on June 25 after he 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.

In an order entered Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger delayed Hughart's sentencing hearing until 11 a.m. on Aug. 1.

Hughart's lawyer, Michael R. Whitt of Lewisburg, asked for the delay because he scheduled a vacation for the last week of June, believing that prosecutors were going to ask for a delay "to give the parties more time to work on issues of common interest to the parties."

Hughart pleaded guilty in late February, and prosecutors confirmed the former Massey official is helping them in a criminal probe that began with the deaths of 29 miners in an April 2010 explosion and has expanded into a broader examination of Massey safety practices.

Last year, Berger twice delayed the sentencing of former Upper Big Branch Mine Superintendent Gary May to give prosecutors more time to develop evidence based on May's testimony. May pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to thwart the federal government's mine safety efforts. He was sentenced in January to 21 months in prison, three years of probation, and a $20,000 fine.

Hughart faces up to six years in prison and a fine of up to $350,000. In his deal with U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, 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 standards.

During a Feb. 28 plea hearing, Hughart alleged that former Massey CEO Don Blankenship was among those who took part in a decade-long conspiracy to subvert federal safety inspections at the company's mines.

Through his lawyer, Blankenship has denied any wrongdoing. And, writing last week on his blog, Blankenship said Hughart was fired from Massey for drug use and stealing from the company.

"[Hughart] is expecting to get a reduced sentence for his plea," Blankenship wrote. "Maybe he will, but he is not telling the truth about me."

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."

Last month, Goodwin's office revealed in court documents in a civil case that former Massey Energy executives and board members "may be, or may become" targets in the criminal investigation. So far in the probe, three people have pleaded guilty and a jury convicted a fourth.

Former UBB miner Thomas Harrah was sentenced to 10 months in jail after he admitted to faking a foreman's license when he performed key mine safety examinations at the mine between January 2008 and August 2009, and then lied to investigators about his actions.

Berger sentenced a former Upper Big Branch security director, Hughie Elbert Stover, to 36 months in jail after Stover was convicted of two felonies: Making a false statement and obstructing the government probe of the mine disaster.

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


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