CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The superintendent of the West Virginia coal mine where an explosion killed 29 men was charged Wednesday with conspiracy to defraud the federal government, becoming the highest-ranking employee to face criminal prosecution in an investigation that appeared to be moving steadily up the corporate ladder.
Former Upper Big Branch mine boss Gary May, 43, of Bloomingrose, W.Va., is named in a federal information, a document that signals a defendant is cooperating with prosecutors. He is the second employee of Massey Energy, the company that owned the mine at the time of the 2010 tragedy, to face prosecution.
The information filed in U.S. District Court in Beckley accuses May of conspiring with others to conceal many dangers in the mine through an elaborate scheme that included code words to alert miners underground when inspectors were on the property, the deliberate alteration of approved ventilation plans and the deliberate disabling of a methane gas monitor on the continuous mining machine.
Reached at his home Wednesday morning, May declined comment. A conviction on the federal fraud charge could result in fines and up to five years in prison.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said his investigation of the worst U.S. mine disaster in four decades is "absolutely not" finished, indicating officials are now exploring possible criminal charges against even higher-level executives of the company.
Last week, Goodwin urged a federal judge in Beckley to make an example of the only other person charged so far, former security chief Hughie Elbert Stover. Goodwin is demanding the maximum possible sentence of 25 years in prison for actions he says contributed to the April 2010 disaster near Montcoal.
Stover is to be sentenced Feb. 29 for lying to federal investigators and attempting to destroy documents.