March 15 (Bloomberg) -- The security chief at the Massey Energy Co. coal mine in West Virginia where 29 workers died in an explosion last year pleaded not guilty to federal charges of obstructing justice and making false statements to U.S. agents.
Hughie Elbert Stover, of Richmond, Virginia-based Massey’s Performance Coal unit, was indicted last month by a federal grand jury investigating the cause of the blast, the worst U.S. mine disaster in 40 years. The indictment is the first criminal charge arising from the U.S. investigation of the April 5 disaster.
Stover, 60, of Clear Fork, West Virginia, is accused of lying to an FBI agent and a U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration investigator about whether he instructed security guards at Performance Coal’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, to announce the arrival of safety inspectors. The U.S. also alleges Stover ordered the disposal of security-related documents in January.
“Not guilty,” Stover said at his arraignment today in federal court in Beckley, West Virginia.
Magistrate Judge R. Clarke VanDervort told Stover that he had the right to be at all proceedings and asked if he wanted to waive that right.
“I will be here, sir,” Stover replied.
VanDervort set an April 25 trial date.
‘Committed to Cooperating’
“The company takes this matter very seriously and is committed to cooperating with the U.S. attorney’s office,” M. Shane Harvey, Massey’s general counsel, said in an e-mailed statement. “The matter remains under review and the company has no further comment at this time.”
When asked today at a news conference after the hearing about the possibility of more indictments, R. Booth Goodwin, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, replied: “Stay tuned.”
Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, working with mine safety investigators, have been probing allegations that in violation of federal law advance notice of inspections were given on a “regular and continuing basis” at Performance’s Upper Big Branch mine, the U.S. said in Stover’s indictment.
“The investigation revealed that there were multiple radio channels that were used by the security guards at the Upper Big Branch,” the U.S. said. One channel was called the “security channel,” the other the “Montcoal channel,” according to the indictment. “Radio transmissions on the Montcoal channel could be heard by individuals working in the Upper Big Branch Mine office.”
The U.S. claims that Stover falsely stated that Performance Coal had “a practice and policy dating back to at least 1999” that barred security guards at the Upper Big Branch mine from giving advance notice of an inspection over the Montcoal channel. In fact, Stover “directed and trained” guards at the mine to give advance notice of an MSHA inspector’s presence over the Montcoal channel, according to the indictment.
The U.S. also accuses Stover of directing “a person known to the grand jury to dispose of thousands of pages of the security-related documents, including documents that reflected the presence” of inspectors at the mine. Stover was aware at the time that the FBI and MSHA were investigating allegations of criminal conduct, including claims regarding advance notices of inspections, the U.S. said.
William Wilmoth, Stover’s attorney, didn’t immediately reply to a call for comment.
The case is U.S. v. Stover, 11-cr-38, U.S. District Court, Southern District of West Virginia (Beckley).
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