Coal Tattoo

In a March 15, 2011 photo, Massey Energy Security Chief Hughie Elbert Stover, center, and his wife, left, are swamped by members of the media as they leave the Federal courthouse in Beckley after. (AP Photo/The Register-Herald, F. Brian Ferguson)

Updated:  Check out a story on today’s testimony, here.

A 12-person jury was selected Friday and lawyers are set to begin their opening arguments at 9:30 this morning in the trial of Hughie Elbert Stover, security director at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 workers died in that terrible explosion back on April 5, 2010.

The explosion was the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years, and Stover’s indictment clearly grew out of what government officials say is a sprawling criminal investigation. But his charges don’t directly have anything to do with the explosion or the deaths. Instead, Stover is charged with two felonies: Lying to government investigators and trying to destroy evidence. Together, the two charges carry a maximum penalty of 25 years in jail, with the heavy time — up to 20 years — tied to the second charge, which is technically called “destruction, alteration, falsification of records in federal investigations and bankruptcy.”

Stove had faced three felony counts, but federal prosecutors dropped one of those late last week. Mostly, that move makes for an easier case for prosecutors. They dropped one count that alleged Stover lied to an FBI agent and an MSHA investigator in an interview that wasn’t recorded or transcribed. But they kept another count alleging that he lied in his initial interview with MSHA and state investigators in an interviewed that was transcribed by a court reporter. The difference? Well, now prosecutors don’t have to put agents on the stand to testify about what Stover said in that unrecorded interview, meaning the defense won’t get a chance to try to discredit the agents’ version of those events. Instead, they can just introduce the transcript to show what he said.

Still, prosecutors will still have to convince jurors that Stover lied when he told investigators that Massey had a policy that prohibited security guards from giving advance warning of federal safety and health inspections. Court records indicate that prosecutors have several witnesses who are expected to testify on that point. Prosecutors will also have to prove that Stover told one of his employees to dispose of a bunch of security-related documents kept in a garage on the mine property.

Both charges stem from the government’s investigation of concerns that Massey officials used security guards to warn underground foremen and other workers of impending inspections, perhaps giving time for any violations to be quickly remedied. Regular readers will recall that this was a major allegation made against Massey by families of the Upper Big Branch miners during a congressional field hearing held by Rep. George Miller, who was then chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor.

MSHA chief Joe Main has said that advance warning of inspections is a significant problem for his agency, and has moved to try to deal with the issue.  Ironically for Mr. Stover, actually giving advance notice of an MSHA inspection carries a much smaller potential penalty — not more than six months in jail — than the crimes with which he’s been charged. Miller proposed legislation to make this crime a felony, rather than a misdemeanor, but that appears to be going nowhere.

So far, only one other person has been charged with a crime related in any way to the Upper Big Branch Disaster investigation. U.S. District Judge Irene C. Berger, who is also presiding over Stover’s trial, sent former UBB miner Thomas Harrah to jail for 10 months after Harrah admitted to faking foreman’s credentials when he conducted hundreds of mine safety checks at the operation for nearly two years, between January 2008 and August 2009.

Several readers have pointed out to me a story from WalesOnline headlined Gleision Colliery mine manager arrested on suspicion of manslaughter, reporting:

THE manager of Gleision Colliery, in which four miners died last month, has been arrested on suspicion of gross negligence manslaughter.

The man is understood to be Malcolm Fyfield, who himself suffered serious injuries in the Swansea Valley mine at the time of the accident.

Phillip Hill, 44, from Neath, Charles Breslin, 62, David Powell, 50, and Garry Jenkins, 39, all from the Swansea Valley, died in the area in which they were working underground.

Police have been investigating the tragedy since it happened on September 15. The plight of the miners touched the nation and a frantic rescue operation was launched.