MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Federal prosecutors investigating the West Virginia mine explosion that killed 29 men widened their net Wednesday, filing criminal charges against a longtime Massey Energy executive who worked closely with former chief executive Don Blankenship — a move signaling where their sights may be ultimately set.
The cooperation of David Craig Hughart is a sign authorities may be gathering evidence to target officials further up the Massey hierarchy. Some victims’ families hold Blankenship personally responsible for the worst US mining disaster in four decades, though prosecutors have declined to say who else could face charges in the ongoing inquiry.
Several former federal prosecutors say it will not be easy to prosecute Blankenship, and it would require more than just damning testimony from witnesses who might have their own agendas.
Corporations such as Massey, since bought out by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources, typically are structured to shield leaders from liability, the experts say. To reach the top, investigators would most likely need hard evidence to match witnesses’ testimony.
Either that, says former US Attorney Kendall Coffey of Miami, or they will need multiple witnesses. ‘‘If the star witness has a supporting cast,’’ he said, ‘‘it can be a compelling basis for conviction.’’
Hughart, former president of a Massey subsidiary that controlled White Buck Coal Co., worked alongside Blankenship for at least 15 years and was named in a federal information filed Wednesday in US District Court in Beckley. He is cooperating with prosecutors, and US Attorney Booth Goodwin said Hughart is prepared to plead guilty to two conspiracy charges that carry the possibility of six years in prison.
Hughart’s phone has been disconnected, and his attorney did not immediately comment.
Although Upper Big Branch is never directly mentioned in the case against Hughart, Goodwin said the charges stem from the investigation of the April 2010 explosion. And the nature of the allegations parallels charges brought against those who were directly involved with the mine.
Prosecutors say Hughart worked with unnamed coconspirators to ensure miners at White Buck and other, unidentified Massey-owned operations received advance warning about surprise federal inspections many times between 2000 and March 2010.
Those illegal warnings gave workers time to conceal life-threatening violations that could have led to citations, fines, and costly shutdowns, authorities say.
Hughart faces two charges: felony conspiracy to defraud the government by impeding the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and misdemeanor conspiracy to violate mandatory health and safety standards.
Goodwin would not say who else might be charged or when, but that his investigators are ‘‘trying to push forward as quickly as we can.’’
Hughart has been president of at least 10 Massey subsidiaries during his career, positions that would have required the consent of a chief executive whose micromanagement is well documented.
At Upper Big Branch, for example, Blankenship demanded production reports every 30 minutes. And last year, Blankenship acknowledged during a deposition in an unrelated lawsuit that his employees had sometimes found cans of Dad’s root beer on their desks: Dad’s, he told the attorney questioning him, stood for ‘‘Do as Don says.’’
Neither Blankenship, who retired about eight months after the disaster, nor his attorneys responded to an e-mail seeking comment.