When state inspectors brought a decertification case against Harrah, the state Coal Mine Safety Board of Appeals rejected a request to permanently bar Harrah from working underground. Instead, board members in March 2010 suspended his mining license for a year.
State and federal mine safety officials appear to be stepping up their efforts to strip licenses and bring criminal charges when they discover miners using faked foreman's certificates while performing safety examinations. At least three men have pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges in West Virginia in this last month alone.
Harrah is charged with one count of falsifying required mine safety documents when he signed a Dec. 16, 2008, safety examination report at Upper Big Branch using a fake foreman's certification number.
Also, prosecutors say Harrah told federal agents on Oct. 22, 2010, that an officer of Performance Coal gave him a phone number to call after he had failed the mine foreman's examination. Harrah told FBI and U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration agents that, when he called the number, the person on the phone gave him a foreman's certification number.
"These statements and representations were false, fictitious and fraudulent," the charges against Harrah allege. "Thomas Harrah had not been instructed by the Performance Coal Company officer to call any telephone number after he failed the examination, and in fact defendant Thomas Harrah invented the foreman's certification number he used to sign the pre-shift and on-shift examination books at the Upper Big Branch Mine."
Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater said that when Harrah was caught, he left the company before Massey was able to fire him.
"It appears that Mr. Harrah forged the certification because he was unable to pass the test to obtain the certification," Gillenwater said. "We have no tolerance for such behavior and are thankful that no one was hurt as a result of Mr. Harrah's conduct."
Documents concerning Harrah's case were originally filed in U.S. District Court on Dec. 30, when Harrah sought legal assistance from the Federal Public Defender after receiving a letter in which prosecutors informed him he was a "target" of their investigation.
U.S. Magistrate Judge R. Clarke VanDervort sealed all records about the matter -- including his order sealing the records -- pending the filing of formal charges or a motion by "an interested party" to unseal the file.
VanDervort acknowledged that judges are required by law to provide the public with notice "and a reasonable opportunity to challenge the decision" to seal such records.
"The court understands that the public may use the PACER system to generate a report of criminal cases for a given period. If an interested person runs the report, sealed actions do not appear among the numerically sequenced cases," VanDervort wrote. "If, however, the interested party simply keys in a case number missing from the sequenced cases, he or she will receive a message stating 'This case is SEALED'.
"The court deems this device sufficient to provide notice to interested members of the public that a case has been sealed," VanDervort wrote. "Should an interested party object to continued sealing, she may then request an opportunity to be heard."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.