April 13 (Bloomberg) -- A former foreman at the Massey Energy Co. coal mine in West Virginia where 29 workers died in an explosion last year pleaded guilty to a federal charge of making false statements to U.S. agents.
Thomas Harrah also pleaded guilty today to a U.S. charge that he misrepresented himself as a certified foreman, qualified to conduct examinations of mining equipment. Harrah failed the test required to be certified as a foreman and used a false certification number to sign off on reports at the Upper Big Branch mine, the U.S. said.
“I signed the fire boss book knowing I didn’t have a certificate or nothing,” Harrah told U.S. District Judge Irene Berger today in Beckley, West Virginia.
The fire boss inspects equipment before a shift and is required to be certified under federal mining regulations. When federal agents investigating the explosion “came to my house and talked about this situation, I lied,” Harrah said.
The allegations against Harrah, filed March 22, resulted from the continuing federal investigation into the causes of the Upper Big Branch explosion, according to the Justice Department. Harrah wasn’t employed by Massey at the time of the April 5, 2010 blast, the company said.
“When Mr. Harrah was caught having forged the certification he left before we could terminate his employment, which we intended to do,” Shane Harvey, Massey general counsel, said in an e-mail today.
“It appears that Mr. Harrah forged the certification because he was unable to pass the test” required, Harvey said. “We have no tolerance for such behavior and are thankful that no one was hurt as a result of Mr. Harrah’s conduct.”
Judge Berger set sentencing for Aug. 11. Harrah faces up to 10 years in prison and a $500,000 fine, according to prosecutors.
The Harrah case is the second criminal charge arising out of the federal investigation of the explosion, the worst U.S. mine disaster in 40 years.
A federal grand jury in West Virginia indicted the security chief at the mine in February on charges of obstructing justice and making false statements to U.S. agents. The security chief, Hughie Elbert Stover, of Richmond, Virginia-based Massey’s Performance Coal unit, pleaded not guilty last month.
Stover, of Clear Fork, West Virginia, is accused of lying to a Federal Bureau of Investigation 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.
The U.S. also accused Harrah of making false statements to investigators from the FBI and the mine safety unit.
Harrah told these agents “that an officer of Performance Coal Co. provided Thomas Harrah with a phone number to call after Thomas Harrah had taken and failed the mine foreman’s examination,” according to the U.S. complaint. Harrah “further stated and represented” that when he called this phone number, he was provided with a mine foreman’s certification number, the U.S. said.
“These statements and representations were false, fictitious and fraudulent,” the U.S. said. Harrah “had not been instructed by the Performance Coal Co. to call any telephone number,” and “invented the foreman’s certification number he used,” according to the U.S. in court filings.
The U.S. also alleged that Harrah claimed he was a certified foreman when he conducted and certified pre-shift and on-shift examinations at the Upper Big Branch mine. U.S. mine regulations require “that a certified person conduct a pre-shift examination of any underground area where any person was scheduled to work or travel,” prosecutors said.
The rules also require that this person certify that the examination was completed.
From January 2008 through August 2009, Harrah conducted the examinations while knowing he wasn’t qualified to do so and claimed he was certified when he wasn’t, the U.S. said.
The case is U.S. v. Harrah, 5:11-cr-00082, U.S. District Court, Southern District of West Virginia (Beckley).
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