MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — Federal prosecutors investigating the West Virginia mine explosion that killed 29 men widened their net Wednesday, filing criminal charges against a longtime Massey Energy executive who worked closely with former CEO Don Blankenship — a move signaling where their sights may be ultimately set.
The cooperation of David Craig Hughart is a sign that authorities may be gathering evidence to target officials further up the Massey hierarchy. Some victims' families hold Blankenship personally responsible for the worst U.S. mining disaster in four decades, though prosecutors have declined to say who else could face charges in the wide-ranging and continuing probe.
Several former federal prosecutors say it wouldn't be easy to prosecute Blankenship, and it would require more than just damning testimony from witnesses who may have their own agendas.
Corporations like Massey, since bought out by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources, are typically structured to shield their leaders from liability, the experts say. To reach the top, investigators would most likely need hard evidence to match witnesses' words.
Either that, says former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey of Miami, or they'll need multiple witnesses.
"If the star witness has a supporting cast," he said, "it can be a compelling basis for conviction."
Hughart, former president of a Massey subsidiary that controlled White Buck Coal Co., worked alongside Blankenship for at least 15 years and was named in a federal information filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Beckley. He is cooperating with prosecutors, and U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said Hughart is prepared to plead guilty to two conspiracy charges that carry the possibility of six years in prison.
Hughart's phone has been disconnected, and his attorney didn't immediately comment.
Although Upper Big Branch is never directly mentioned in the case against Hughart, Goodwin said the charges come from the investigation of the April 2010 explosion. And the nature of the allegations parallels charges brought against those who were directly involved with UBB.
Prosecutors say Hughart worked with unnamed co-conspirators to ensure miners at White Buck and other, unidentified Massey-owned operations received advance warning about surprise federal inspections many times between 2000 and March 2010.
Those illegal warnings gave workers time to conceal life-threatening violations that could have led to citations, fines and costly shutdowns, authorities say.
Hughart faces two charges: felony conspiracy to defraud the government by impeding the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and misdemeanor conspiracy to violate mandatory health and safety standards.
Goodwin wouldn't say who else might be charged or when, but that his investigators are "trying to push forward as quickly as we can."
Hughart has been president of at least 10 Massey subsidiaries throughout his career, positions that would have required the consent of a CEO whose micromanagement is well-documented.
At Upper Big Branch, for example, Blankenship demanded production reports every 30 minutes.
And last year, Blankenship acknowledged during a deposition for an unrelated lawsuit that his employees had sometimes found cans of Dad's root beer on their desks: Dad's, he told the attorney questioning him, stood for "Do as Don says."
Neither Blankenship, who retired about eight months after the disaster, nor one of his attorneys responded to an email seeking comment.
Four investigations have concluded that Massey concealed problems at the mine through an elaborate scheme that included sanitized safety-inspection books and an advance-warning system.
Clay Mullins, who lost brother Rex in the explosion, doesn't believe it will be that hard to prove that Blankenship personally maintained a corporate culture that put no value on workers or safety.
"I think all Massey operations ran just the way UBB did," Mullins said. "They all had advance warning. They all tried to hide and cover up as much as they could. They tried to conceal and deceive and deny. That was Massey's mentality. That was how they handled things."