U.S. jury indicts ex-Sago foreman

A former Sago Mine foreman was charged Tuesday with faking safety reports and lying about his qualifications to conduct those inspections.Robert L. Dennison, 35, of Wallace, was indicted by a federal grand jury in Elkins, U.S. Attorney Thomas E. Johnston announced.Dennison was charged with criminal mine safety violations that allegedly occurred more than a year before last month’s Sago Mine explosion.The 116-count indictment focuses on 113 instances when he allegedly certified that he had a required license to perform various mine safety examinations.“This type of allegedly fraudulent activity has no place in the mining environment, especially when the safety of miners is placed at risk,” Johnston said.David G. Dye, acting director of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, said, “MSHA vigorously investigates all acts of unlawful conduct that threaten miners’ safety and refers those cases involving criminal conduct to the United States Attorney’s Office for prosecution.”In a news release, Johnston added that, “at this time, there is no apparent connection between the allegations in this case and the tragic events at the Sago Mine in January.”But, inspection records show that Sago Mine managers continued to improperly conduct various mine safety checks for more than a year after Dennison’s actions were discovered.Twelve miners died and another was critically injured following the Jan. 2 explosion that ripped through the Upshur County mine. It was the worst mining disaster in West Virginia in nearly 40 years.Federal inspectors cited Sago for more than 200 safety violations in 2005, and safety experts are studying the operation’s record for any clues about the cause of the blast.The mine’s owner, International Coal Group, has said that it was trying to improve safety at the mine, and inherited numerous problems when it formally took over the operation in November 2005. ICG founder Wilbur Ross, a New York billionaire, controlled the mine’s previous owner, Anker Coal Group, since at least 2001, according to corporate records.On Tuesday, an ICG spokesman declined to comment on Dennison’s indictment.Dennison applied for a job as a Sago Mine foreman on May 15, 2004, according to the indictment released Tuesday.The indictment says that Dennison gave the company a state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training card stating that he was certified on June 6, 1996, to work as an underground coal miner.
Dennison told Anker that he was also certified to work as a foreman, but gave the company no proof of that, the indictment states.
Anker hired Dennison five days later, on May 20, 2004, the indictment states.State regulators say that Dennison was never certified as a mine foreman or underground miner, but did receive a certificate as a surface mine truck driver.Between May 20 and Aug. 22, Dennison signed records indicating that he had performed 113 mine safety checks, including those covering belts, pumps and entire working sections of the mine.The first time, Dennison did not list a foreman’s certification number. Each time after that, Dennison signed the reports and listed a foreman’s certificate number that actually belongs to another foreman, the indictment states. The indictment did not name the other foreman, but said that he did not know Dennison and had never worked at Sago.For each of the 113 safety checks, the indictment charges Dennison with one violation of a law that makes it a crime to falsify mine safety records.
The indictment also charges Dennison with three other counts of falsely stating that he conducted certain safety checks, and lying to federal officials on Oct. 13, 2004, about his qualifications.Dennison told investigators that he did “not have [his] miners’ card or foreman’s card as [he] lost his wallet that had them in it,” the indictment says.Federal officials said that Dennison could face a total of 580 years in prison and a fine of up to $1.88 million.Dennison was apparently caught in late August 2004, according to the indictment and other government records.On Aug. 25, a state inspector cited Anker when the company could not provide a miners’ or foreman’s certificate for Dennison, according to agency records.“Evidence, conversation and research reveals that Robert L. Dennison is not a certified miner in West Virginia,” the state inspector wrote.The indictment states that Anker “terminated” Dennison “on or about Aug. 23 ... upon learning” that he was not certified.A little more than two years ago, a foreman at another Anker mine pleaded guilty to lying to MSHA during its investigation of a fatality at the company’s Fairfax No. 3 Mine in Harrison County.In October 2003, Fairfax No. 3 foreman Robert L. Carter Jr. was sentenced to four months in jail and three years probation, federal court records show.Carter pleaded guilty in February 2003 to charges that he lied to MSHA during its probe of a 1999 roof fall that killed miner Jack White.Staff writer Dave Gustafson contributed to this report.To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.
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