CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin promised Thursday that a sprawling criminal investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster is far from over, and said critics of the probe's results to date should not assume the inquiry won't reach higher up the mine's management ladder.
Goodwin said federal investigators are examining a variety of ways to file more charges, including whether any two or more company officials conspired to violate federal mine safety laws -- a strategy not used previously against the coal industry.
"It hasn't been in the playbook," Goodwin said in an interview with the Gazette. "But we're not operating under the prior playbook."
Goodwin discussed the ongoing investigation a day after a federal jury in Beckley gave his office its second conviction in an 18-month probe of the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.
A 12-person jury found Upper Big Branch security chief Hughie Elbert Stover guilty of two felonies: lying to federal agents and trying to destroy evidence. When sentenced in February, Stover will face up to 25 years in prison.
Last month, former Upper Big Branch miner Thomas Harrah was sentenced to 10 months in jail. Harrah pleaded guilty to faking a foreman's license when he performed key mine safety examinations at the mine between January 2008 and August 2009 and to then lying to investigators about his actions
Earlier this week, United Mine Workers officials issued a reported that labeled the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 workers "industrial homicide," and demanded more prosecutions of top officials from the former Massey Energy.
And Stover's defense lawyer, former U.S. Attorney Bill Wilmoth, argued to jurors that his client was little more than a scapegoat, while prosecutors had not brought charges against "the real villain or villains in this disaster."
But Goodwin said the two convictions for misleading investigators are important, especially in the coal counties of Southern West Virginia, where the industry's economic and political power can keep some witnesses from coming forward and prompt others to be less then truthful. Goodwin said prosecutors had hoped to get honest testimony from Stover, who sometimes provided personal security for former Massey CEO Don Blankenship and other corporate officials.
"What we wanted, bottom line from him, was cooperation, and he provided the exact opposite," Goodwin said. "This sends a message that you should not lie and you should not obstruct this investigation."
The Harrah case provides a glimpse at how obstruction not only hides information from federal investigators, but also sends agents off in other directions that eventually prove less than fruitful.
Initially, Harrah told agents that Massey officials had helped him obtain a fake foreman's certificate. Investigators began pursuing that lead, only to find that Harrah's had lied to them and had acted alone.
Goodwin said investigators were quick to pick up on Harrah's false statement, but acknowledged such an incident "takes resources away from the ultimate point of the investigation."
In this case, Goodwin said that ultimate point is a slow and methodical effort to find out what caused the mine explosion, and then uncover any criminal activity involved.
"We're taking small chunks," Goodwin said. "If you bite off an enormous deal like what caused the explosion, that's just mind-boggling what it would require, if it's even possible."