CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal prosecutors are investigating whether U.S. Department of Labor inspectors may have tipped off Massey Energy officials about inspections at the company's Upper Big Branch Mine prior to the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said his office is looking into testimony by a former Upper Big Branch superintendent that federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors regularly told company officials when they planned to visit the Raleigh County mine.
"It goes without saying that government officials have to follow the law like everyone else, and if we get leads that raise questions about whether they have, we investigate," Goodwin said Thursday. "I can't comment on the status of specific leads, but we obviously pay close attention to what a defendant says at a plea hearing."
Asked if that means he and his team are looking into allegations made by former Massey superintendent Gary May about MSHA providing advance notice of its own inspections, Goodwin said, "Yes, of course."
Two weeks ago, May made his assertion when he pleaded guilty as part of a deal that has him cooperating with the sprawling federal criminal investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. May admitted to a one-count felony charge that he conspired to violate mine safety standards and cover up the resulting unsafe conditions.
Among other things, May 43, of Bloomingrose, admitted he took part in a scheme to provide advance warning of government inspections and then hide or correct violations before federal agents could make it into working sections of the sprawling mine.
During a March 29 plea hearing in Beckley, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger asked May to explain who took part in that conspiracy with him.
"It started, you know, from the MSHA inspectors coming on the property," May testified under oath. "Sometimes they would tell us, you know, they'd be back tomorrow or where they were going. And it went from there to telling everybody that was outside, you know, just scatter word by mouth on the phone, and they would tell whoever was underground.
"It's just something that happened from the time I got there until after I left and happened at every mine I've ever been to," May told Berger.
Berger pressed May on the matter, and asked him after May conferred with his lawyer, "When you said earlier that it began with inspectors coming onto the property and saying, 'We'll be back tomorrow,' was it or was it not your intention to indicate that these inspectors were part of the conspiracy that you've told me about Mr. May?"