A former Massey Energy executive pleaded guilty in federal court on Thursday, Feb. 28 to charges in connection with the disaster at the Upper Big Branch Mine in April 2010 that killed 29 coal miners.
David Hughart,53, of Crab Orchard, who was president of Massey's Green Valley Resource Group, pleaded guilty to a felony charge of conspiracy to impede the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), and a misdemeanor charge of conspiracy to violate mine safety laws.
Reports said that Hughart was accused of working with unnamed co-conspirators to ensure miner at White Buck Coal Co. and other Massey-owned operations got advance warning about surprise federal inspections.
Under oath Hughart said, " I condoned, knew it was happening and let it go on."
In fact, Hughart told Judge Irene Berger that the violations had been going on for more than 10 years. When questioned by Judge Berger, Hughart also said under oath that blame went even higher. Judge Berger asked specifically who knew, and Hughart responded that it went all the way to Massey's CEO.
While Hughart did not give a specific name, the CEO of Massey Energy at the time of the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine was Don Blankenship.
59News spoke with Hughart's son Jonathan after the plea hearing. He offered sympathy for the families those lost in the UBB disaster, but was quick to point out that his father was never at the mine.
"For the record, my father never did set foot on the property of UBB. He's never been on that property, he's never been underground there," said Jonathan Hughart.
Hughart is the highest ranking official to date to be charged in the ongoing federal investigation which was conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Labor Office of Inspector General, and the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division. Alpha Natural Resources, Inc., which acquired Massey's operations in a June 2011 merger, is continuing to cooperate with the investigation.
A sentencing date for David Hughart was set for June 25 at 1:30 p.m. in front of Judge Berger. He faces up to six years in prison and a $350,000 fine.
"Mine safety and health laws are not optional," said U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin. "This prosecution reiterates the message that mine safety violations are very serious crimes."
Hughart is believed to be the highest-ranking mine official ever convicted of conspiracy to impede MSHA or conspiracy to violate mine health and safety standards.