Former coal executive finishes testimony against ex-CEO boss

AP News
Posted: Oct 16, 2015 2:09 PM

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A former coal executive who was dealt a prison sentence for mine violations testified Friday that his company sometimes took shortcuts to produce coal under his top boss, ex-Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship.

Taking the stand in Blankenship's criminal trial, former Massey subsidiary president David Hughart said that under Blankenship and former COO Chris Adkins, the company was more concerned about having to pay fines than actually keeping mines safe. He said his mines would sometimes be short-handed and still producing coal.

"It was just always a push for production," said Hughart, who testified Thursday and Friday in Charleston federal court under a plea deal with the government.

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 a 2010 explosion 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 executives expected to testify against their old boss.

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. Blankenship's indictment describes a similar warning system instituted at Upper Big Mine, which was not one of the mines that Hughart oversaw.

Prosecutors are painting him as a micromanager that put profits above safety, particularly at Massey's highly profitable complex at Upper Big Branch. Blankenship's attorneys contend that he was a divisive figure and a pushy boss who cared about money, but still ordered that safety come first.

Defense attorneys showed Hughart several memos by Blankenship and other Massey upper management advocating safety improvements. The messages said Massey was hiring more miners and introducing a new safety program. Another memo showed how Hughart was looking to implement his own version of that new safety push at his mines.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory McVey countered by asking if Hughart was aware that mine violations increased at Massey after several memos were sent out, which Hughart couldn't verify. Hughart confirmed that the note about hiring miners occurred during a boom in demand, and that the new miners would be producing coal, not improving safety. Hughart also said he received no additional workers to start his safety initiative, and still was pushed to produce coal.

Defense attorney Blair Brown revisited Hughart's previous problems with the law.

Hughart admitted that he could have faced charges for stealing from Massey and benefiting from kickback schemes at the company, lying to federal agents and evading income taxes. Brown said the charges could have carried more than a 30-year maximum prison sentence. Hughart admitted that he instead took a plea deal with prosecutors for the mine violations.

Hughart also admitted that he bought more than $4,000 in pills and gave them to an informant. He was caught with painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs without prescriptions in August 2013. He later told a prosecutor that he became addicted to painkillers after he was injured in a coal mine.

Hughart said federal prison officials shaved 10 months off his sentence for participating in a drug program. He's scheduled for a December 12 release.