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A relatively routine plea hearing in Beckley, W.Va, Thursday, took an unexpected and dramatic turn when a former Massey Energy executive implicated former CEO Don Blankenship in a criminal conspiracy.
It's the first time Blankenship has been publicly named as an alleged conspirator in the ongoing federal criminal investigation of the 2010 explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch coal mine.
The accusation is also the first public indication that Blankenship specifically is in the sights of federal prosecutors.
Blankenship's name was not uttered by former Massey executive David Hughart as he pleaded guilty to two conspiracy counts for his role in providing advance warnings to miners underground when federal inspectors arrived on the surface for surprise safety inspections.
Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette was in the courtroom when U.S. District Judge Irene Berger asked Hughart "to name his co-conspirators," as Ward reports.
"Hughart said 'the chief executive officer,'" Ward writes, which was Blankenship at the time of Hughart's crimes.
"Finally there is a witness to Blankenship's misdeeds who will step forward and tell what he knows," says Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America. "Hopefully more will follow suit."
Hughart, 54, ran a Massey subsidiary that did not include the Upper Big Branch mine but prosecutors seem to be trying to build conspiracy cases against former executives aware of allegedly illegal practices.
"Don Blankenship didn't conspire with anybody to do anything illegal or improper," says William Taylor, Blankenship's attorney, in an interview with NPR. "It's not unusual but always a little strange to see what people will say when they're trying to get a shorter prison sentence."
Hughart is scheduled for sentencing in June and continues to cooperate with prosecutors.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby declined to respond when asked by NPR whether Blankenship is a formal target of the federal investigation.
Prosecutors claim in court documents that Hughart participated in a conspiracy to violate mine safety laws, resulting in the kind of dangerous conditions that preceded the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine.
Four investigations of the tragedy concluded that the corporate culture at Massey Energy put production before safety. Investigators in this and an earlier mine disaster found evidence that Blankenship kept very close tabs on coal production and delays in all of the company's mines.
Blankenship left Massey in December, 2010, shortly before the company was sold to Alpha Natural Resources. He received a departure package worth $86.2 million according to an analysis of company records conducted for an attorney for some of the families who sued Massey for wrongful death.