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 kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.