Massey security man thought nothing of dumping papers
BECKLEY, W.Va. -- Prosecutors and defense lawyers will make closing arguments Wednesday in the case of a Massey Energy security director charged with lying to federal agents and destroying documents sought by investigators looking into the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.
Both sides rested their cases Tuesday, after jurors heard one Upper Big Branch Mine guard describe how security director Hughie Elbert Stover told him to throw out thousands of mine visitor logs and incident reports amid a massive criminal investigation of the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.
Jurors also heard from Stover, who took the stand Tuesday afternoon in his own defense.
"It never crossed my mind that I was doing something illegal," Stover testified, according to an account from WSAZ-TV. "There's nothing on earth that would make me commit a crime. I wouldn't wish on anyone the heartache and misery I've put them [his family] through."
Stover testified in his own defense in just the second day of trial in U.S. District Court in Beckley. The former Marine and Raleigh County sheriff's deputy faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted on both counts against him.
The case focuses attention on the practice of advance notification of U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration inspections, which is a crime punishable by up to six months in jail.
Stover is not charged with that, but instead with falsely telling investigators that his security staff did not warn workers when MSHA inspectors arrived at the mine gate. Stover also is charged with later trying to get rid of security documents investigators say shed light on security policies and practices at Upper Big Branch.
Federal officials began digging into advance notification practices at Massey following a May 2010 congressional hearing. Families of miners who died at Upper Big Branch testified at that hearing that security guards routinely radioed ahead to the mine office when inspectors arrived so that mine management could alert workers underground and fix any safety problems before inspectors could cite them.
FBI Special Agent Robert Pruden testified Tuesday that Stover told him and an MSHA special investigator that he took some heat from management in 1999 when he did away with a Massey practice of warning about inspections.
"He said he would not have his guards breaking the law or breaking the regulations to have guards making notification of inspectors being on the property," Pruden said, describing a Nov. 3, 2010, interview with Stover.
But so far, at least four Upper Big Branch security guards have testified it was standard procedure to announce it over the radio when any non-Massey employee visitors -- including inspectors -- arrived at the mine.
"That's the way I was shown when I first started working the gate," guard Jonathan Williams said.
Williams and other Massey security guards have testified for the government against Stover, under deals that give them immunity from prosecution for anything they say.
Another FBI agent, Jim Lafferty, testified Tuesday about executing search warrants at Upper Big Branch in May 2010, searching various mine buildings for all sorts of documents about the operation. At the time, 30 to 40 law enforcement officers were at the scene, Lafferty said.
"We wanted to determine what caused the explosion and other matters prior to the explosion that may have involved criminal conduct at the mine," Lafferty said.
But, Lafferty told jurors, investigators didn't learn about a large stash of mine security records kept in the house across the road until Williams discussed the matter during grand jury testimony on Jan. 26, 2011.
At trial on Tuesday, Williams told jurors that he worked overtime on Jan. 11, 2011, to follow Stover's instructions to empty the security file boxes into trash bags, load them into an SUV and haul them across the road to the mine site, where he tossed them into a Dumpster.
Williams described for jurors how he followed Stover's instructions to "clean out" various items -- including security files -- from a makeshift storage area in the basement of a house across the road from Upper Big Branch.
"He said to throw all the old papers in the Dumpster, the trash compactor," Williams testified. "He said to take it out of the boxes and put it in trash bags."
After investigators learned of Williams' actions, Massey lawyers apparently discovered the Dumpster had not been emptied yet and retrieved the trash bags. Prosecutors showed jurors photographs of 20 banker's boxes containing the retrieved files.
During his opening argument, defense lawyer Bill Wilmoth had called Stover's instructions to Williams "a stupid mistake." Wilmoth said Stover had a practice of regularly disposing of old security files, and that the storage area needed cleaning because of damage from a sewage leak.
According to WSAZ-TV, Stover testified on Tuesday, when asked about Williams, "I wish I hadn't told him that ... It's the stupidest mistake I've ever made in my life."
Williams said he didn't recall ever being asked before to clean out files or other items from the storage area.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.