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. CHARLESTON, W.V.a -- A former employee of Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine has been charged with faking a foreman's certificate and with lying to federal investigators who are looking into the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners at the operation.Thomas Harrah, 45, of Seth, is charged with faking a foreman's license when he performed key mine safety examinations at the Upper Big Branch Mine between January 2008 and August 2009.Prosecutors also allege that Harrah later lied to federal investigators when he suggested that officials from Massey's Performance Coal Co. subsidiary had helped him obtain a forged foreman's certification.
Both charges, made in a two-count information filed in U.S. District Court in Beckley, are felonies. Each could draw a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said Harrah has agreed to enter into a plea agreement. Prosecutors plan to file a request for a plea hearing, Goodwin said.Harrah is the second person to be charged with lying to federal agents who are continuing what officials say is a wide-ranging inquiry of the mine disaster and safety practices at the Massey operation."The charges filed today arise out of our investigation into what led to the tragedy at Upper Big Branch," Goodwin said in a statement. "I want to be clear: There will be real consequences if you falsify records, lie to federal agents or otherwise attempt to obstruct this investigation."Massey's security director at Upper Big Branch, Hughie Elbert Stover, 59, has pleaded not guilty to charges that he lied to investigators and tried to destroy evidence about company policy regarding warning workers when government inspectors arrive at the mine. Trial is scheduled for April 25.In the Harrah case, the Gazette reported in December that state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training officials had alleged that Harrah used a fake foreman's license when he performed at least 228 pre-shift, on-shift and conveyor belt safety examinations at Upper Big Branch over a nearly two-year period, from January 2008 to August 2009.Harrah had a state license to work as an underground coal miner, but had failed the test required for a foreman's license, state records show. Mine foremen not only supervise other workers, but also perform important safety checks and sign required reports meant to document that any problems discovered are corrected before miners go to work.State investigators discovered that Harrah was using a foreman's license number that was assigned to another person. Harrah used the license number when he signed in at a required continuing education session held by Massey at its Marfork Coal operations in June 2009. State investigators picked up on the problem when they went through the list of attendees to give them credit for the training, records show.Harrah was using a certification number that had been assigned to someone else on Aug. 28, 2007, the day before Harrah failed the foreman's test.By the time he was caught, Harrah had been using the fake license for nearly two years, and had moved on to another Massey operation, the Slip Ridge Cedar Grove Mine, in August 2009, state records show.When state inspectors brought a decertification case against Harrah, the state Coal Mine Safety Board of Appeals rejected a request to permanently bar Harrah from working underground. Instead, board members in March 2010 suspended his mining license for a year.
State and federal mine safety officials appear to be stepping up their efforts to strip licenses and bring criminal charges when they discover miners using faked foreman's certificates while performing safety examinations. At least three men have pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges in West Virginia in this last month alone.Harrah is charged with one count of falsifying required mine safety documents when he signed a Dec. 16, 2008, safety examination report at Upper Big Branch using a fake foreman's certification number.Also, prosecutors say Harrah told federal agents on Oct. 22, 2010, that an officer of Performance Coal gave him a phone number to call after he had failed the mine foreman's examination. Harrah told FBI and U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration agents that, when he called the number, the person on the phone gave him a foreman's certification number."These statements and representations were false, fictitious and fraudulent," the charges against Harrah allege. "Thomas Harrah had not been instructed by the Performance Coal Company officer to call any telephone number after he failed the examination, and in fact defendant Thomas Harrah invented the foreman's certification number he used to sign the pre-shift and on-shift examination books at the Upper Big Branch Mine."Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater said that when Harrah was caught, he left the company before Massey was able to fire him."It appears that Mr. Harrah forged the certification because he was unable to pass the test to obtain the certification," Gillenwater said. "We have no tolerance for such behavior and are thankful that no one was hurt as a result of Mr. Harrah's conduct."
Documents concerning Harrah's case were originally filed in U.S. District Court on Dec. 30, when Harrah sought legal assistance from the Federal Public Defender after receiving a letter in which prosecutors informed him he was a "target" of their investigation.U.S. Magistrate Judge R. Clarke VanDervort sealed all records about the matter -- including his order sealing the records -- pending the filing of formal charges or a motion by "an interested party" to unseal the file.VanDervort acknowledged that judges are required by law to provide the public with notice "and a reasonable opportunity to challenge the decision" to seal such records."The court understands that the public may use the PACER system to generate a report of criminal cases for a given period. If an interested person runs the report, sealed actions do not appear among the numerically sequenced cases," VanDervort wrote. "If, however, the interested party simply keys in a case number missing from the sequenced cases, he or she will receive a message stating 'This case is SEALED'."The court deems this device sufficient to provide notice to interested members of the public that a case has been sealed," VanDervort wrote. "Should an interested party object to continued sealing, she may then request an opportunity to be heard."Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.