Coal Tattoo

Breaking news: More charges in UBB probe

We just broke the story on the Gazette’s website about criminal charges filed today in U.S.  District Court in Beckley, W.Va., against a former Massey Energy employee who faked his certification to perform mine safety examinations at the Upper Big Branch Mine.

The person named in these charges — Thomas Harrah — was the subject of a Sunday Gazette-Mail story back in December in which we reported:

Thomas Harrah of Seth 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, according to state records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Later, state investigators learned that Harrah was using a certification number that actually belonged to another individual. By then, though, Harrah had started using another certification number — again belonging to a different individual — and was performing safety checks at another Massey operation, the Slip Ridge Cedar Grove Mine, in August 2009, state records show.

Harrah had a state license to work as an underground coal miner, but he failed the test to become a certified mine foreman. Mine foremen not only supervise other workers, they also perform important safety checks and sign required reports meant to document that any problems discovered are corrected before miners go to work.

On March 9, 2010, the state Coal Mine Safety Board of Appeals suspended Harrah’s underground miner license for a year, rejecting a proposal from the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training to permanently bar Harrah from working underground in West Virginia.

Today’s charges allege that Harrah used a false certification number when he performed an unspecified number of mine safety examinations for Performance Coal Coal Co. at Upper Big Branch between January 2008 and August 2009.  Specifically:

On each pre-shift and on-shift report that he signed, defendant Thomas Harrah falsely listed his foreman’s certification number as 38690. Defendant Thomas Harrah knew that this foreman’s number did not belong to him. In fact, the number belonged to another individual.

Here is a copy of the charging document:

Some readers may recall this portion of our December story about Mr. Harrah:

In October 2009, then-state mine safety director Ron Wooten filed a formal petition seeking to have Harrah’s license to work underground as a rank-and-file miner permanently revoked.

Harrah appeared at a March 2 hearing before the state mine appeals board — the body that considers whether to punish miners and foremen who violate safety rules — without an attorney and offered sometimes-conflicting accounts of what happened.

On the one hand, Harrah told board members that Massey officials had “been pushing me into this bossing stuff and, one day, I came in and — bam — there [his foreman’s card] is.”

Harrah said he wanted to admit to the allegations against him, but insisted several times that he did not actually forge a foreman’s card.

“Really and truthfully, I didn’t forge any papers,” Harrah testified, according to an audio recording of the meeting obtained by the Gazette-Mail. “I didn’t want to endanger anybody. I’m just not that kind of person.”

“They’re saying I forged it, but I didn’t,” Harrah said. “I didn’t know the number was somebody else’s when I was using it. It’s got my name on that card, but I don’t know how it got there. I’m in a little bit of a guilty way, because I should have known better than that.”

Harrah testified that he did not know whether he passed or failed the test, and that two Massey officials, Jason Whitehead and Rick Hodge, gave him a number to call to check his results. Harrah said he didn’t know who he was calling, but when he called the number, he was faxed a paper with a foreman’s certification number. He later received a foreman’s card with yet another number in the mail, Harrah said.

Well, here’s what the information unsealed today in federal court had to say about all of that:

On or about October 22, 2010, at or near Comfort, Boone County, West Virginia, and within the Southern District of West Virginia, defendant Thomas Harrah knowingly and willfully made materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statements and representations in a matter within the jurisdiction of the executive branch of the Government of the United States, in that (1) defendant Thomas Harrah stated and represented to a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Special Agent and a Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) Special Investigator that an officer of Performance Coal Company provided Thomas Harrah with a phone number to call after Thomas Harrah had taken and failed the mine foreman’s examination and (2) defendant Thomas Harrah further stated and represented that when he called this number the person on the phone provided him, Thomas Harrah, with a mine foreman’s certification number.

These statements and representations were false, fictitious, and fraudulent, as defendant 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 forman’s certification number he used to sign the pre-shift and on-shift examination books at the Upper Big Branch Mine.

Shane Harvey, Massey’s general counsel, had told me at the time of our original story that when the company became aware of Harrah’s conduct, the worker left before Massey would fire him:

“It appears that Mr. Harrah forged the certification because he was unable to pass the test to obtain the certification,” Harvey said. “It does not appear that he blames anyone else for the incident other than himself and we feel confident that no one at Massey helped Mr. Harrah violate the law. We have no tolerance for such behavior and are thankful that no one was hurt as a result of Mr. Harrah’s conduct.”

Though Harrah stopped working at Upper Big Branch months before the disaster, he is the second person to be charged as part of what is said to be a broad federal criminal investigation of the explosion and safety practices at the Massey operation.

Harrah is also not the first coal miner in West Virginia or at Massey to be caught using forged or fake foreman’s certifications.

UPDATED: U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said today —

The charges filed today arise out of our investigation into what led to the tragedy at Upper Big Branch. 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.