Coal Tattoo

Prosecutors face test in UBB security chief sentencing

UPDATED: Here’s a link to our online story from this morning’s hearing, with the news that Judge Berger sentenced Mr. Stover to 3 years in prison.

I’ll be heading down to Beckley in a little while, to cover this morning’s scheduled sentencing for Hughie Elbert Stover, the former Massey Energy security chief convicted last October of lying to investigators and trying to destroy evidence in the federal probe of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

Make no mistake: This hearing is a big test for U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and his staff (including lead UBB prosecutor Steve Ruby, pictured above) in their effort to get tough on mine safety criminals. Goodwin has urged U.S. District Judge Irene Berger to give Stover the statutory maximum of 25 years — a sentence described by NPR’s Howard Berkes this morning this way:

A 25-year sentence would be more than seven times the jail term recommended in federal sentencing guidelines for Stover’s crimes, which max out at 41 months. Defense attorney William Wilmoth says prosecutors want what amounts to “a de facto life sentence” for the 60-year-old Stover.

Goodwin and Ruby described their strategy this way in a sentencing brief filed with Judge Berger:

Longstanding conventional wisdom holds that the federal government cares little about mine safety crimes. This case has the potential to upend that assumption and foster broad deterrence in an industry that is closely monitoring the outcome here. A sentence consistent with the magnitude of defendant’s conduct and its consequences will send a resounding message: Gambling with coal miners’ lives risks the most severe punishment available under the law.

Today’s hearing will feature testimony from Gina Jones, the widow of Upper Big Branch miner Dean Jones, as well as MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin and Gary May, a UBB mine superintendent who was charged last week with conspiracy to violate mine safety laws and cover up the resulting hazards at the mine. May’s appearance on the government’s witness list is another indication that he’s cooperating with prosecutors, has reached some sort of plea agreement and — most importantly — is providing testimony against other potential targets of the criminal probe.

With Goodwin and his team continuing to try to make their way up the Massey management ladder, it seems likely that the results of today’s sentencing could help — or hurt — their efforts to get others with valuable information to talk. If May conspired to violate safety laws and cover up dangerous conditions, he must have conspired with somebody …

The hearing could also get ugly. If defense attorney Bill Wilmoth pushes too far with his argument that Stover deserves a light sentence because he’s a good family man, a veteran, and a former police officer, prosecutors have indicated they have witnesses who will talk publicly about misconduct as a Raleigh County sheriff’s deputy — including “racially motivated misconduct” — and “sexually explicit images” found on Stover’s work computer.

Of course, Wilmoth argues that Stover had nothing to do with causing the mine disaster. He wrote on one recent legal brief that to suggest otherwise, as prosecutors did, “is offensive, it is scandalous, it is libelous, but most importantly, it is false.” MSHA investigators disagreed, writing in their report on Upper Big Branch that advance notifications of inspections were a “flagrant violation” at UBB that directly contributed to the explosion and the 29 deaths:

Under the Mine Act, it is illegal for mine operators’ employees to give advance notice of an inspection by MSHA enforcement personnel. Despite this statutory prohibition, UBB miners testified that PCC/Massey mine personnel on the surface routinely notified them prior to the arrival of enforcement personnel. Miners and others testified they were instructed by upper management to alert miners underground of the arrival of enforcement personnel so hazardous conditions could be concealed. UBB dispatchers testified they were told to notify miners underground when MSHA inspectors arrived on the property, and if they did not, there would be consequences.

Advance notice gave those underground the opportunity to alter conditions and fix or hide hazards immediately prior to enforcement personnel’s arrival on the working section. PCC/Massey also made ventilation changes in the areas where MSHA inspectors planned to travel, concealing actual production conditions from enforcement personnel.

Today’s hearing starts at 11 a.m. Check our Gazette website for the latest information. We’ll post word of the judge’s ruling there first.