Trial starts for mine security boss in W.Va. blast

By JOHN RABY | October 25, 2011 | 2:00 PM EDT

BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) — Federal prosecutors said Monday the former security chief at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine where 29 miners died in a 2010 explosion lied to investigators and attempted to destroy related documents in defiance of company orders.

Opening statements were given Monday in U.S. District Court in the trial of Hughie Elbert Stover, 60. It is the first criminal proceeding to come from the nation's deadliest coal mine explosion in decades.

Stover is accused of lying to federal investigators looking into the explosion. An indictment alleges he sought to conceal that he instructed the mine's security guards to announce by radio when federal inspectors were on the property.

"Not only did he train his guards to make the announcement, he enforced the policy," Assistant U.S. Attorney Phil Wright told jurors.

Federal law forbids such advance warnings of spot mine safety checks. Stover had told investigators that mine policy barred this illegal practice, and that he would have fired any guard who violated it, the indictment alleges.

Federal prosecutors say Stover also ordered a subordinate to destroy thousands of security-related documents that were kept in barracks on the Upper Big Branch property. Two orders had been issued to company employees after the explosion not to destroy the documents.

Defense attorney William Wilmoth argued the charges were the government's rush to justice and that Stover is being used as a scapegoat.

Wilmoth said the company had a practice of clearing out old property from the barracks because several years ago the building's contents were contaminated by sewage.

Among the documents tossed were old computer screens and video-cassette records. Throwing out the security-related documents was simply "a stupid mistake," Wilmoth said.

After the documents were thrown out, Wilmoth noted "each and every one of these documents were retrieved and the government didn't lose anything."

Wilmoth also said the area where the documents were discarded into a trash bin was covered by security cameras and that investigators were in the area at the time.

"If he was trying to do that, why did he involve another person?" Wilmoth told jurors. "Why didn't he try to do it himself? Do those sound like the kind of things someone would intentionally do if they were trying to obstruct an investigation?"

Among the early witnesses called to testify by the government were Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's administrator of coal mine safety and health, and Tim Watkins, an MSHA district manager.

Massey is now owned by Abingdon, Va.-based Alpha Natural Resources.