UBB security chief charged with lying, destroying files
Read the indictment here. CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The chief of security for Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine lied to investigators and tried to destroy mine records, a grand jury has alleged in the first charges to come from a federal criminal probe of the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 coal miners.
Hughie Elbert Stover, 60, of Clear Fork in Raleigh County, was charged with two felonies that allege he tried to obstruct FBI agents and U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration investigators looking into the mine disaster.
The eight-page indictment alleges Stover lied to investigators about company policies and practices regarding warning mine personnel when federal safety inspectors arrived on site. It also alleges Stover tried to destroy thousands of pages of security documents investigators believe could shed light on how Massey handles such matters.
"The conduct charged by the grand jury -- obstruction of justice and false statements to federal investigators -- threatens our effort to find out what happened at Upper Big Branch," said U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin. "With 29 coal miners lost and thousands more waiting for answers about what caused the disaster, this inquiry is simply too important to tolerate any attempt to hinder it."
The grand jury charged Stover in an indictment filed under seal on Friday and made public Monday after Stover was arrested and made an initial appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge R. Clarke VanDervort.
Federal law generally prohibits advance notification of any MSHA inspection, and since the Upper Big Branch explosion agency officials have been cracking down on what many say is a widespread industry practice.
The Stover indictment says FBI agents and MSHA special investigators have been looking into allegations that advance notice of inspections "had been given on a regular and continuing basis" at the Upper Big Branch Mine.
Investigators discovered that there were multiple radio channels used by security guards at the mine, the indictment says. One was known as the "security channel," and another as the "Montcoal channel." Workers in the mine office could overhear transmissions on the Montcoal channel, the indictment said.
The indictment says that federal agents interviewed Stover on or about Jan. 21 and asked him about Massey's policies concerning advance notice of inspections.
Stover told investigators that Massey subsidiary Performance Coal "had a practice and policy dating back to at least 1999 that forbade security guards at the Upper Big Branch Mine from giving advance notice of an inspection by prohibiting the announcement of the presence of MSHA inspectors ... over the Montcoal channel," the indictment said.
Stover also told investigators he "would have fired any security guard who did not abide by the practice and policy forbidding announcement of the presence of MSHA inspectors over the Montcoal channel," the indictment said.
The indictment alleges that those statements were "false, fictitious and fraudulent" because Stover "had himself directed and trained security guards" to give advance notice of MSHA inspections. The indictment charged him with making false statements, a charge punishable with up to five years in prison.
The grand jury also alleged that Stover directed "a person known to the grand jury" -- but not named in the indictment -- to "dispose of thousands of pages of security-related documents."
At the time Stover did this, the indictment says, he knew federal officials were looking into advance notice of inspections at Upper Big Branch. Stover was attempting to "impede, obstruct, and influence" the government investigation, the indictment alleges.
The documents were apparently stored in the garage of a house known as the "barracks" near the main security gate at Upper Big Branch, the indictment said.
On about Jan. 11, this "known person" sorted through the documents, keeping some of them that Stover wanted preserved, the indictment said, but disposing of thousands of pages of security-related documents in a trash compactor.
"These documents were later recovered after the federal government inquired about their existence in the course of its investigation into allegations of advance notices of inspections having been given at the Upper Big Branch Mine," the indictment says.
Stover was charged with concealing documents in a federal investigation, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
Stover is scheduled to be arraigned on March 15 in federal court in Beckley. His lawyer, former U.S. Attorney William Wilmoth, declined comment Monday.
Massey general counsel Shane Harvey issued a statement saying the company takes the matter very seriously and is cooperating with the U.S. Attorney's office.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., noted in a statement that the indictment echoes complaints from miners and their families about advance notice of inspections at a House Labor Committee field hearing in Beckley last May.
"This despicable conduct to provide advance notice of inspections alleged in the indictment likely impaired MSHA's ability to detect violations that could have saved lives," Miller said. "It also underscores the urgent need for legislation to better deter unlawful advance notice of inspections, which is only a misdemeanor and never prosecuted."
Stover was charged with lying to investigators and destroying documents, both felonies, rather than the misdemeanor charge for advance notice of inspections.
The Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety and Health Act would have made this kind of illegal conduct a felony and punishable by five years in prison or a $250,000 fine.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.