A longtime subordinate of ex-Massey Energy chief Don Blankenship publicly implicated his boss for the first time Thursday in what was appears to be a widespread corporate practice of warning coal miners about surprise inspections.
At a federal hearing in which he pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy, former White Buck Coal Co. president David Hughart pointed to Blankenship. The charges against Hughart grew from federal prosecutors' continuing investigation of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, a 2010 explosion that killed 29 Massey miners, and could bolster other criminal cases they might be building.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin refused to comment on the direction of his investigation, but Hughart's testimony was the latest signal that he could be working his way up the ladder to what experts say would be a rare prosecution of a major corporate executive.
Blankenship attorney William Taylor, however, said his client has done nothing wrong.
"Don Blankenship did not conspire with anybody to do anything illegal or improper. To the contrary, Don took every possible step to make the mines under his responsibility safer," he said in an email.
"We are not particularly concerned about Mr. Hughart's statement," Taylor added. "It is not surprising that people embellish or say untrue things when they are attempting to reduce a possible prison sentence."
Hughart, 54, was accused of working with others to ensure miners at White Buck and other Massey subsidiaries got advance warning about federal inspections between 2000 and March 2010. Such warnings let miners and managers conceal potentially deadly conditions that could lead to a shutdown in production.
Hughart spoke so softly that those in the courtroom struggled to hear him say he had no hesitation about pleading guilty.
"I allowed ... it to happen," he said. "I was responsible for the operation."
Judge Irene Berger asked Hughart if such warnings were company policy and, if so, who ordered it.
"The chief executive officer," Hughart replied.
Though he was not mentioned by name in court, Blankenship was CEO at the time. And outside the courtroom, Karen Hughart confirmed that's who her husband meant.
"Don called the office and at home," she said, adding that her husband has been threatened several times in his career. "Anyone that did not comply was threatened. We lived under fear."
Hughart is the highest-ranking Massey employee involved in a criminal case since the investigation began. He faces up to six years in prison and a $350,000 fine when sentenced June 25. A former Upper Big Branch superintendent was recently sentenced to 21 months in prison after pleading guilty to charges he defrauded the government through his actions at the mine.
Blankenship retired about eight months after the nation's worst coal mining disaster in four decades, and several victims' relatives have demanded he be prosecuted.
Gary Quarles, who lost son Gary Wayne, said Hughart's comment bolsters that hope. Though he was mildly surprised Hughart agreed to roll over on his former boss, Quarles said he hopes others will do the same "because that's the cat I want."
Others are also responsible for his son's death, but Quarles said Blankenship must be held accountable above all.
"It's just a matter of time," he told The Associated Press by phone. "... I want him to know he can be had. His money can't get him out of everything."
Blankenship has been re-emerging as a public figure over the past year, launching a website where he shares his thoughts and calls the day the mine near Montcoal exploded one of the worst of his life.
Those in West Virginia's coalfields hold Blankenship personally responsible, accusing him of putting profits before people throughout his long career as a union-busting operator.
Multiple investigations found the Upper Big Branch blast was caused by blatant disregard of federal safety laws, and Blankenship had a well-documented record of micromanaging his mines.
But when Hughart was charged last fall, several former federal prosecutors told the AP it won't be easy to prosecute Blankenship, and it will require more than just damning testimony from witnesses who may have their own agendas.
Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney in Miami, said prosecutions of financial fraud have been more successful, but in fatal safety cases it's sometimes difficult to prove a crime was committed.
"It's historically been difficult to move to the top of the pyramid. Typically a chairman or CEO has multiple layers and relatively few fingerprints on the operational issues that directly cause a tragedy," Coffey said.
To reach the top, experts say, investigators would most likely need documents or other hard evidence to match witnesses' words. Either that, or they'll need multiple witnesses.
At least one potentially powerful document has already been made public.
After a 2006 fire that killed two men at a different Massey operation, attorneys in a civil lawsuit found a memo from Blankenship. He told workers at the Aracoma Coal Alma No. 1 mine that if their bosses asked them to build roof supports or perform similar safety-related tasks, "ignore them and run coal."
"This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills," he wrote.
Massey settled that lawsuit for undisclosed terms, and its subsidiary paid $4.2 million in civil and criminal penalties.
Blankenship had long been a public figure and household name in West Virginia, lavishing millions on conservative political candidates including state Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin, and accusing the former head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration of lying to Congress.
But the Upper Big Branch disaster made him known outside the state, and a week before his retirement, a national magazine profile labeled him "the dark lord of coal country." The mine has since been sealed by the company that bought out Massey, Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources.
Goodwin's office negotiated a $210 million agreement with Alpha to settle past violations at Upper Big Branch and other Massey mines. That protects the company from criminal prosecution but leaves individuals open to it.
Neither Hughart nor attorney Michael Whitt commented after the hearing. But Hughart's son, Jonathan, said he wants to see Blankenship in court.
But "Don Blankenship is a very powerful person," he said. "He won't see a day in prison. I promise you that."
Smith contributed from Morgantown.