A former executive of Massey Energy Company is expected to plead guilty to charges of conspiring to impede mine inspectors from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and violating safety laws. These charges come in connection with the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 miners, the most deadly accident in West Virginia’s history. Following the disaster, Massey Energy Company was purchased by its competitor, Alpha Natural Resources.
David Hughart, the former president of one branch of Massey Energy Company, allegedly conspired to violate health and safety laws, and to conceal the violations, during the decade from 2000 and 2010. This included warning mine employees in advance when federal mine inspectors were expected to appear. Even if Hughart pleads guilty, he faces a prison sentence of up to six years. He would be the highest-level employee of Massey to face punishment for his actions, though likely not the last. In 2011, Hughie Elbert Stover, a security chief at the Upper Big Branch mine, was convicted of making false statements and impeding a federal investigation. He is currently appealing a 36-month prison sentence. Also in 2011, a foreman at the Upper Big Branch mine, Thomas Harrah, received a 10-month prison sentence in exchange for a plea agreement. While Alpha Natural Resources entered into a settlement with the federal government for $209 million, the settlement does not preclude prosecution of individuals responsible for the deadly disaster.
Prior to the Upper Big Branch explosion, Massey Energy Company had a very poor safety history with its mines in general. Safety violations for Upper Big Branch included purposely keeping two sets of books on the company’s safety record — one that was for internal use, containing the true health and safety problems, and one that did not contain the information that was given to the federal inspectors.
Conspiracy is a serious criminal charge. A conspiracy typically exists when there is an agreement between two or more people to commit a crime at some point in the future. Because conspiracy requires an agreement, it is a “specific intent” crime, where the actor acts with the knowledge of what he or she is doing and the objective of completing an unlawful act. Specific intent crimes are usually considered to be more serious that “general intent” crimes, where no intent for the result is required before committing the act. If a member of a conspiracy regrets his actions and withdraws before the completion of the crime, he or she may get a lesser sentence, but is not absolved.
Because conspiracy is such a serious crime, it is not surprising that Hughart chose to plead guilty and agree to cooperate with the ongoing investigation, likely in exchange for a lesser sentence. Actually, if you are a West Virginia criminal defense attorney, or a criminal defense attorney anywhere, plea bargaining is more the norm than the exception. The majority of criminal cases never actually go to trial because of deals worked out between the prosecution and defense.