West Virginia Mine Safety Expert Accused of Fraud and Other Crimes

1269975_coins_in_hand.jpgA mine safety expert, handpicked by West Virginia’s Senator Joe Manchin to investigate three mining disasters, has been accused by NASA of conspiring with the Catholic college where he is employed to use millions of federal grant dollars for his personal gain and for the school’s benefit.

Davitt McAteer is viewed by many to be expert on every type of mine, from Chilean gold mines to West Virginia coal mines. He was placed in charge of investigating the 2006 Sago mine explosion that trapped and killed 12 men, the 2006 Alma No. 1 fire that killed two men, and the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29. McAteer issued the first report on the causes of the Upper Big Branch explosion. He has also served as a commentator over the years on high-profile issues like the Chilean mine cave in that trapped 33 miners.

However, McAteer has also been under investigation since May 2010. He and Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia, where he has held several titles, may be guilty of as many as five crimes: theft of federal funds; fraud; false claims; conspiracy; and wire fraud.

Between 2000 and 2009, NASA gave Wheeling more than $116 million in federal awards for specific projects, with $65 million coming after McAteer took over the school’s Sponsored Programs Office in 2005. When McAteer took over, he created a Combined Cost Management Service Center, which allegedly allowed him to control and consolidate all the expenses, whether related to the federal awards or not. The main accusation against him is that he used the new system to bill NASA for salaries and expenses even for those who did not work on the programs for which the money was intended. Federal investigators allege that the duties and salaries of his staff “did not, in any way, benefit the substantive work being done on the federal award projects.”

At this point, it is not clear what the outcome will be. If McAteer did use federal funds for his gain, then it is a sad situation where someone with the public’s trust abuses that trust. We rely upon investigators to protect us by giving us the information we need. When we find out they are lying, that forces us to think twice about whether that information is reliable. At a time when there have been significant cover ups about mine safety, such as with Upper Big Branch, people need to be able to trust the ones charged with exposing the cover ups.

On the other hand, we at the Wolfe Law Firm know that being charged with fraud is not the same as being guilty of fraud. That is why criminal suspects hire West Virginia criminal defense attorneys to defend them against the charges. The ones in this case pertain to federal law, since they involve federal grants through NASA. Under Chapter 47 of the United States Code, someone guilty of fraud can be imprisoned for up to five years. The same is true for conspiracy. If you find yourself accused of violating the federal criminal code, hire an experienced attorney as soon as possible to defend against the charges.