CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A former coal executive who was dealt a prison sentence for mine violations began testifying Thursday in the criminal trial for his old boss, ex-Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship.
On the stand in Charleston federal court under a plea deal, former Massey subsidiary president David Hughart began describing Blankenship's push for coal production. Defense attorneys countered by noting memos that Blankenship and other managers sent to Hughart honing in on safety priorities.
In 2013, Hughart was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison for conspiring in an illegal scheme to warn miners and other subsidiaries of surprise safety inspections. Hughart implicated Blankenship in the conspiracy during his plea hearing.
Hughart's conviction stemmed from a wide probe into an explosion in 2010 at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, which killed 29 men. The same investigation led prosecutors up the corporate ladder to Blankenship. Hughart is the first of several Massey upper managers expected to testify against Blankenship.
Blankenship is charged with conspiring to break mine safety laws and lying to financial regulators and investors about safety practices at Upper Big Branch leading up to the explosion. Prosecutors are painting him as a micromanager that put profits above safety, particularly at Massey's big money-making complex at Upper Big Branch.
On Thursday, Hughart said that while mines were already operating short on manpower, Blankenship criticized how many hours Hughart's workers were putting in. In a 2009 memo, Blankenship said he would likely cut 15 percent of Hughart's people and man-hours.
In another memo, Blankenship told Massey subsidiary presidents that their "core job is making money," adding that he was "looking to make an example out of somebody and I don't mean embarrassment."
"I'd be pressured to run, produce coal," Hughart said Thursday.
Additionally, Hughart said Massey upper management, including former COO Chris Adkins, told Hughart and his peers that they had a right to notify underground miners when mine inspectors arrived. Hughart said he never was reprimanded by Massey for the charges to which he pleaded guilty.
Blankenship's charges say a similar warning system existed at Upper Big Branch, where employees aboveground warned underground miners of inspectors' arrival in time to address or cover up unattended deficiencies. Hughart did not oversee Upper Big Branch.
In response, Blankenship's attorneys first flipped the focus Thursday to other issues Hughart had outside of the mining crimes.
Defense attorney Blair Brown started to ask about how Hughart was "busted" for drugs, before Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory McVey loudly objected. Judge Irene Berger told jurors to ignore the question. Hughart was arrested for having painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs without prescriptions in September 2013.
In response to another question, Hughart told Brown he knew he could have been prosecuted in other instances, including schemes where stole from or made kickbacks off Massey.
Hughart also said he understood that the warning system at his mines was a crime.
"I just didn't think it was anything serious," he said.
Hughart said he recalled seeing some memos on safety from Blankenship and other top executives, adding that he remembered one of Massey's main safety initiatives, a hazard elimination program. Defense attorneys showed a memo where Hughart took the program and tried to apply it to his group of mines.
Blankenship's attorneys have contended that the executive was a tough boss and divisive public figure, but wasn't running Upper Big Branch himself and did not think breaking regulations was a smarter business plan than fixing health hazards.
Hughart will continue to be questioned Friday morning.