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FBI Probe of Massey Said to Focus on Possible Bribery

A state trooper at the mine
A West Virginia State Police car is parked at an entrance to the Upper Big Branch mine the day after an explosion in Montcoal, West Virginia on April 6, 2010. Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Massey Energy Co., dealing with the death of 29 miners at one of its West Virginia coal mines, is being investigated by the FBI for possible bribery of state and federal inspectors, a person familiar with the probe said.

An April 5 explosion at the Richmond, Virginia-based company’s Upper Big Branch Mine resulted in the deaths and sparked the investigation by the bureau, a second person familiar with the matter said April 30, asking not to be identified because the matter is confidential.

At least two dozen Massey employees, federal and state officials and mine union members have been interviewed by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the first person familiar with the investigation said.

The mine and its operators could be held criminally responsible for the explosion if there were any “overt acts,” such as falsification of inspection documents or evidence of tampering with monitors and recording devices, said Bruce Stanley, a Pittsburgh attorney who represents the widows of two miners killed in an earlier incident.

“It’s too early to provide any comment at this point,” Massey spokesman Roger Hendriksen said in a phone interview today.

Should the FBI interview turn up evidence of criminal conduct, the matter would be referred to the U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of West Virginia, the first person said.

Pending Report

The U.S. Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration and the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Health Safety and Training have also been investigating the accident.

A pending investigative report from the Office of Miners Health Safety and Training might be referred to both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney for Raleigh County, West Virginia. If U.S. and state investigations show only violations of state law, the matter would be referred to the county prosecutor, the first person said.

West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin will receive a report from an independent investigation headed by former MSHA Director J. Davitt MacAteer. MacAteer was previously named by Manchin to investigate a fire at Massey’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine and an accident at International Coal Group’s Sago Mine, both of which occurred in January 2006.

The Aracoma mine fire resulted in the company’s being fined $2.5 million, placed on probation and assessed $1.7 million in civil penalties for MSHA citations accrued both before and after the fire.

Aware of Probe

Massey fell $4.53 or 11 percent to $36.63 on April 30 after the FBI investigation into possible bribery of federal officials and criminal negligence was reported by National Public Radio. Massey rose 89 cents to $37.52 at 3:59 p.m. today in New York Stock Exchange composite trading.

“We are aware that investigators are interviewing witnesses, but are not aware of the nature of their investigation,” Massey said the same day in a statement. The company said it intends to cooperate in all phases of the accident investigation.

“We never comment on criminal investigations,” MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said.

Fined Over Fire

Calls to the West Virginia Office of Miners Health Safety and Training were not immediately returned.

Tracy Schmaler of the U.S. Department of Justice press office did not immediately return a call for comment.

Stanley sued the federal mine safety agency April 28 on behalf of Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield, whose husbands were killed in the 2006 fire at Massey’s Aracoma Mine. Don Bragg, 33, and Ellery “Elvis” Hatfield, 46, were suffocated by smoke after a fire broke out at the mine in Melville, West Virginia.

MSHA fined Massey $1.5 million in 2007 over the fire, citing 25 violations that contributed to the deaths. U.S. officials said Aracoma’s employees removed ventilation controls, called stoppings, while installing electrical equipment. This allowed smoke into the escape route.

Plea Delayed

Aracoma agreed to plead guilty in December 2008 to nine counts of willful violation of mandatory safety standards and one count of making a false statement and pay a criminal fine of $2.5 million, according to court records. Acceptance of the plea was delayed until April 2009 after the miners’ widows asked that it be rejected because the U.S. had agreed not to prosecute anyone at the parent company for offenses connected to the accident.

The Upper Big Branch Mine, located in Montcoal, is operated by Performance Coal, a Massey unit.

The miners’ widows sued the U.S. in federal court in Charleston, West Virginia, alleging the federal mine safety agency breached a duty to protect the workers.

Safety agency inspectors failed to “inspect and remedy egregious safety violations that existed in the Alma mine,” Bragg and Hatfield said in their lawsuit. In the year before the fire, inspectors issued 95 citations at the Alma mine and didn’t require mine operators to take corrective action, the women claim, citing MSHA’s investigation.

The widows’ case is Bragg v. U.S., 2:10-cv-00683, U.S. District Court, Southern District of West Virginia.

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