CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Former Massey Energy executives and board members "may be, or may become" targets in the ongoing federal criminal investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, prosecutors said in court documents filed this week.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin made the disclosure to support an effort to continue a court-ordered stay on a civil suit brought against former Massey officials by former shareholders who alleged they were misled about the company's safety record.
Goodwin and Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Westfall argue that allowing the civil case to proceed could hamper the criminal probe, by giving potential targets access to evidence collected by government agents in the criminal investigation.
"Individual defendants in this civil action may be, or may become, subjects or targets in the criminal investigation," Goodwin and Westfall said in a motion filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Beckley.
If the civil case -- particularly the "discovery" of documents -- is allowed to proceed, the prosecutors argue, potential criminal defendants "will be able to use the discovery process to obtain much of the evidence that is at the heart of both this matter and the criminal investigation.
"With that evidence, they will be able to draw informed conclusions about key details of the government's case -- to learn what the government knows," the prosecutors said. "That information could, in the worst case, allow the individual civil defendants to shape their own statements to the criminal investigation or to influence the testimony of other witnesses, thus obstructing the criminal investigation."
Prosecutors and parties to the civil case made a similar statement -- that civil defendants "may be potential targets in the criminal investigation" -- in a court filing in July 2012.
But this time, Goodwin and Westfall asked U.S. District Judge Irene Berger to schedule a closed-door hearing so that prosecutors could privately brief the judge on how allowing the civil case to move forward might affect the criminal probe.
"The United States recognizes that the court, in considering this motion, may benefit from an explanation of the specific aspects of the criminal investigation that would be jeopardized if discovery proceeds now in this civil action," the prosecutors said. "Public disclosure of details of the criminal investigation, however, would be inappropriate; if individuals learn that they are subjects or targets of the investigation and discover the evidence against them, they would be in a position to undermine the investigation by, for example, influencing witnesses."
The prosecutors added, "It is well established that preserving the integrity of criminal investigations may require non-public judicial proceedings: grand jury secrecy and the sealing of search warrant affidavits are two commonplace examples."
An existing stay on the civil case, ordered by Berger in January, expired on Monday.