Massey Energy is responsible for the worst U.S. mining disaster in over four decades, which killed 29 men in an explosion two years ago in Upper Big Branch. And David Craig Hughart’s cooperation with prosecutors may be a signal that investigators are trying to bring down responsible leaders.
But leaders in large corporations are often afforded certain protections, and it’s not always easy to get to the top. To do so often requires hard evidence in addition to witnesses. But Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. Attorney from Miami, says that multiple witnesses can do the trick, too.
“If the star witness has a supporting cast,” Kendall Coffey said, “it can be a compelling basis for conviction.”
And since Hughart worked closely with former Massey CEO Don Blankenship (who retired just eight months after the incident), that may be an indicator that investigators are trying to gather witnesses and evidence to convict execs like Blankenship. Many victims’ families already hold Blankenship personally responsible, but have yet to see him topple.
Hughart wasn’t directly mentioned in the Upper Big Branch disaster of 2010, but he has been charged with conspiracy to cover up dangers at other Massey-owned sites, which parallels some of the charges for those involved with UBB.
By giving advance warning of federal inspections, Massey covered up violations that were dangerous and life threatening to workers—ones that would have led to shutdowns, fines, and the prevention of UBB.
“I think all Massey operations ran just the way UBB did,” said Clay Mullins, who lost his brother Rex in the 2010 explosion. “They all had advance warning. They all tried to hide and cover up as much as they could. They tried to conceal and deceive and deny. That was Massey’s mentality. That was how they handled things.”
And attorney Bruce Stanley says such behavior likely came from high up. “I cannot imagine that anybody at Hughart’s pay rank could engage in any of the activities that he’s accused of without Don Blankenship’s permission and blessing,” he said.