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Massey executive pleads guilty, implicates CEO

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By Andrea Lannom

By Lauren Hensley

A former Massey executive -- and the highest coal official to date charged in a mine disaster probe --implicated former CEO Don Blankenship in the conspiracy during a Feb. 28 plea hearing.

David Hughart, 53, of Crab Orchard, pleaded guilty in Beckley to conspiring to impede MSHA inspectors and conspiracy to violate mine health and safety laws.

Hughart admitted that there was a practice and policy of pre-notification of inspectors when inspectors were on the property between higher up officials and lower officials.

U.S. District Judge Irene Berger asked who these higher-up people were and Hughart responded that it was the chief executive officer.

He said mine foremen and supervisors also had this agreement.

Berger asked if there were meetings where this practice was discussed and Hughart said there were and he admitted he was part of those discussions.

Hughart said this practice went on over an eight to 10 year period.

The U.S. Attorney's office did not wish to comment on Hughart's statement.

Hughart pleaded guilty to covering up certain mine ventilation and dust control compliance information. Hughart was said to have worked with others to provide advance notification of safety inspections, allowing the concealment of potential hazards to miner health and safety.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin also announced the plea in a news release.

"Mine safety and health laws are not optional," Goodwin said in the news release. "This prosecution reiterates the message that mine safety violations are very serious crimes."

Information filed with the court said Hughart and others committed these violations from 2000 through March 2010.

In the Feb. 28 hearing, Hughart said he knew the procedure was wrong but condoned it and allowed it to happen. 

Hughart could face up to six years in prison and a $350,000 fine when he is sentenced at 1:30 p.m. June 25. He was released on a $10,000 unsecured bond. 

After the hearing, Hughart's wife, Karen, told sister-station WVNS that Blankenship threatened her husband's job on "numerous occasions."

"This was common practice, common practice within Massey that they notify guards and anyone else in the property and if you do not do that, you are fired and you are black balled from the coal industry," she said.

In his released statement, United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil E. Roberts, said he thinks Blankenship's indictment and conviction "is the only possible outcome" for the investigation to be complete.

"The statement in court today by Mr. David C. Hughart that the former chief executive officer (CEO) of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, was involved in a long-term scheme to violate mine safety laws and cover it up is surprising only in that a high-level Massey employee finally told the truth," the statement read. "Those of us who have observed Blankenship's lawless ways over the past many years have long predicted this day would come if the facts ever came out."

Roberts continued, alleging Blankenship ran "roughshod over mine safety and health laws, over labor laws and over the people of central Appalachia."

"Those few of us who would stand up to him were often hounded with lawsuits and subjected to threats and attempted intimidation," the statement reads.

"Thankfully, those days are over," the statement continued. "But the damage Don Blankenship and Massey Energy did to workers, their families and their communities will take years to overcome. I commend U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin for taking this investigation where no one else has, and look forward to the day when Don Blankenship is behind bars where he belongs."