Updated at: 09/10/2013 5:05 PM
By BRUCE SCHREINER and VICKI SMITH
(AP) BECKLEY, W.Va. - A former Massey Energy executive who conspired with others in an illegal advance-warning scheme at West Virginia coal mines was ordered Tuesday to spend 3 1/2 years behind bars for his role in undermining federal safety laws and the inspectors charged with enforcing them.
U.S. District Judge Irene Berger sentenced David Hughart on conspiracy charges that grew out of a criminal investigation into the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 men in southern West Virginia. Berger also ordered Hughart to three years’ probation once he completes his sentence.
"I’m sorry for what I’ve done in the past. I let it happen," said Hughart, a former president of a Massey subsidiary, White Buck Coal Co.
Though Hughart never worked at Upper Big Branch, he is cooperating in an ongoing Department of Justice probe of the worst U.S. coal mine disaster in decades.
Two others _former Upper Big Branch security chief Hughie Elbert Stover and former superintendent Gary May _ are already behind bars for their actions at the now-sealed mine near Montcoal.
Hughart has acknowledged his role in ensuring that miners at other Massey subsidiaries got illegal advance warning of surprise safety inspections, and he had implicated Massey CEO Don Blankenship in the conspiracy during his plea hearing earlier this year.
Hughart said Tuesday that giving advance warnings was a "very common practice," as common as learning to tie shoelaces as a child.
Several investigations found miners at Upper Big Branch routinely got illegal advance warnings, giving them time to temporarily fix or disguise potentially deadly conditions underground.
Massey is now owned by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources. Blankenship, who retired ahead of the merger, denies any wrongdoing.
Hughart, shackled at the ankles and wearing an orange jumpsuit, did not mention Blankenship when he spoke to the court Tuesday.
Hughart’s cooperation signals that federal prosecutors may be working their way up Massey’s corporate ladder, though they have steadfastly refused to comment on their possible targets.
Hughart was fired from White Buck a month before the Upper Big Branch blast after failing a random drug test.
He was in court earlier Tuesday for a bond-revocation hearing following a recent arrest on drug charges. Federal probation officials said he was caught Aug. 30 in Beckley with the painkiller oxycodone and the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam, but had no prescription for either.
He did not contest the drug charges in court, and Magistrate Clarke VanDervort revoked Hughart’s $10,000 bond.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby acknowledged the drug offenses could affect Hughart’s credibility as a witness as the government builds its case.
Gary Quarles, whose son Gary Wayne died at Upper Big Branch, said that whether advance warning was common practice or not, Hughart knew it was illegal and should have stopped it.
But rather than watch people go to jail for that, Quarles wants to see indictments of the Massey executives directly responsible for conditions at his son’s mine.
"I still got my hopes," he said after the sentencing. "I’m willing to wait, as long as it takes. And then slam the door on it."
Four investigations into Upper Big Branch found that worn and broken cutting equipment created a spark that ignited accumulations of coal dust and methane gas. Broken and clogged water sprayers allowed what should have been a minor flare-up to become an inferno.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said the root cause was Massey’s "systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts" to conceal life-threatening problems. MSHA said managers even maintained two sets of pre-shift inspection books _ an accurate one for themselves, and a sanitized one for regulators.
Hughart had faced up to six years under the law.
His lawyers argued in June that he’d been unfairly linked to the disaster and asked the court for leniency in sentencing. Hughart never contested his crimes but said none of his actions "can be linked to any actual mining injury."
Prosecutors, however, argued for a stiffer sentence, saying the conspiracy endangered miners’ lives.
Smith contributed from Morgantown.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)