UPDATE: 4 ex-coal mine officials cleared in Kentucky fraud trial

Former coal company officials were accused of skirting dust rules in two underground mines

Update from November 17, 2021:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A federal jury has cleared four former coal company officials who were accused of skirting dust rules in two underground Kentucky mines.

The jury in U.S. District Court in Louisville deliberated Wednesday for about two hours before returning not guilty verdicts. The trial was a rare attempt to prosecute coal company officials on criminal charges.

Federal prosecutors had alleged that the men ordered subordinates to tamper with dust collection equipment at two Armstrong Coal mines in order to stay in compliance with federal regulations.

But defense attorneys said prosecutors lacked evidence that the men had taken part in a conspiracy to cheat the rules.

Kent Wicker, a Louisville attorney, said there “was never a scrap of evidence” that his client, Glendal “Buddy” Hardison, was guilty.

“We were gratified the jury understood,” Wicker said.

Hardison, the highest ranking company official of the four, was in charge of all of Armstrong’s western Kentucky mines. The coal company went bankrupt in 2017.

Jason Grover, a trial litigator with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, declined to comment after the verdict Wednesday afternoon.

Eight people were originally charged in the case in 2018 and Hardison was added to the case in 2019. Five reached plea agreements with prosecutors to avoid felony charges.

Attorneys for the four men argued throughout the trial that the men took no part in rigging dust pumps and didn’t explicitly order anyone to break the rules.

“In this case I knew my client was not guilty,” said Marc S. Murphy, an attorney for Charley Barber, a former superintendent at one of the Armstrong mines. “This case shouldn’t have been prosecuted.”

The federal dust rules exist to protect mine workers from inhaling too much dusty air, which can contribute to an incurable and fatal disease called pneumoconiosis, or black lung. That disease has killed tens of thousands of coal miners.

The nation’s former mine safety chief, Dave Zatezalo, said in a statement about the Armstrong Coal indictments in 2018 that compliance with dust safety rules “is crucial to protecting miners against respiratory illness.”

But a judge’s order in 2019 barred prosecutors from discussing the connection between coal dust in mines and black lung disease at the trial. U.S. District Judge Joseph McKinley ruled that “language specifically mentioning black lung and the disease process is not relevant and serves no purpose other than to inflame the jury.” McKinley had said evidence of black lung risks could be brought up at sentencing if the men were convicted.

The alleged incidents occurred at Armstrong’s Kronos and Parkway mines between 2013 and 2015, prosecutors said. A group of mine workers had complained about dusty conditions at the mines and met with a lawyer, which set the case in motion. At least two of the former workers have been diagnosed with black lung disease.

The trial was postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic and later moved from Owensboro to Louisville A new judge also was assigned, U.S. District Judge Benjamin Beaton, a Paducah native.

Along with Hardison and Barber, former safety director Brian Keith Casebier and Dwight Fulkerson, a former section foreman, were also acquitted of the conspiracy charges Wednesday.

The prosecution of the ex-Armstrong Coal officials was similar to a case brought against former West Virginia coal executive Don Blankenship in the wake of a 2010 coal mine explosion that killed 29 miners. Blankenship was convicted of a misdemeanor in 2015 and sentenced to a year in prison. He was not accused of direct responsibility for the deadly blast at Upper Big Branch mine, but prosecutors were able to prove that he had conspired to skirt mine safety rules.

 

 

Update from November 15, 2021: 

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Federal prosecutors ended their case against four former coal company executives on Monday after a former safety director testified about how he attempted to cheat underground mine safety rules.

The four men on trial in federal court in Louisville are accused of ordering workers to skirt dust sampling regulations in two of Armstrong Coal’s underground mines.

Ron Ivy, a former safety director at Armstrong’s Kronos mine, testified Monday that a senior-level Armstrong official, Glendal “Buddy” Hardison, told him and two other safety officials in 2013 that they had to make sure the mine’s dust pumps were reading at the desired range. The pumps are carried by underground workers and samples are taken from them to determine the amount of dust in the mines.

Ivy said Hardison told him “the dust (reading) has got to come in and the (mine’s) production has to stay up.” Ivy testified earlier that the mine where he worked was filled with dusty air.

Federal dust regulations in underground mines are meant to protect workers against dangerous levels of breathable dust, which can contribute to a deadly and incurable disease known as black lung.

Ivy said to skirt the rules, he and other workers would place the pumps in cleaner parts of the mine to lower the dust readings. Ivy said of Hardison, who was in charge of all of Armstrong’s western Kentucky mines, “it was his mines, he ran them his way.”

Ivy was originally charged with eight other defendants but reached a plea deal with prosecutors. Each of them were charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government, a felony. Ivy pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.

Hardison’s attorney, Kent Wicker, asked Ivy if Hardison ever explicitly asked him to cheat the rules. Ivy said Hardison did not.

“Make the dust (pumps) come in doesn’t necessarily mean to cheat, right?” Wicker said.

Ivy testified that the mine didn’t have enough staff to comply with the dust rules and maintain desirable production levels.

The trial is a rare prosecution of coal company officials on criminal charges. Federal regulators typically issue fines and shut down mines when they find safety violations, but in this case prosecutors allege that the men broke the law by conspiring to cheat the rules.

Prosecutors ended their case on Monday after Ivy and another witness testified. Defendants will have a chance to present witnesses beginning on Tuesday.

Armstrong went bankrupt in 2017. Prosecutors said the incidents occurred at the Kronos and Parkway mines between 2013 and 2015.

Attorneys for the former coal company officials have argued throughout the trial that none of the men on trial were directly involved in manipulating readings on the pumps.

 

 

Original story below from November 8, 2021:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A group of four former coal company officials conspired to cheat federal safety regulations to boost their Kentucky company’s profits instead of protecting their workers, federal prosecutors alleged at the start of a criminal fraud trial Monday.

The four men are accused of ordering workers to skirt dust sampling regulations in two of Armstrong Coal’s underground mines. The regulations are meant to protect workers against dangerous levels of breathable dust in the air, which can lead to a deadly and incurable disease known as black lung.

The trial is a rare prosecution of coal company officials on criminal charges. Federal regulators typically issue fines and shut down mines when they find safety violations, but in this case prosecutors allege that the men broke the law by conspiring to cheat the rules.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Corrine Keel said during opening statements Monday that the men took “dangerous shortcuts” when they ordered workers to rig dust sampling, including moving dust sampling devices to cleaner parts of the mine to get lower readings. The devices are known commonly in the industry as dust pumps.

“Evidence will show the defendants were supposed to be protecting miners, instead they protected these pumps,” Keel said.

Rather than slow production and take measures to clear dust from the mine, “cheating on the sampling was routine,” at the company’s Parkway and Kronos mines, Keel said.

Armstrong went bankrupt in 2017. Prosecutors said the incidents occurred at the two mines between 2013 and 2015.

Attorneys for the former coal company officials argued Monday that they are innocent of the charges. They said none of the men on trial were directly involved in manipulating readings on the pumps.

They are each charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States, a felony.

Glendal “Buddy” Hardison, a former general manager over Armstrong’s western Kentucky mines, is the highest-ranking former official of the four.

“There won’t be any evidence that Buddy was involved in dust sampling,” his attorney, Kent Wicker said Monday. He said Hardison is accused of giving “vague directions” to workers that prosecutors are treating as evidence of his guilt.

Charley Barber, a former superintendent at Armstrong’s Parkway mine, is a victim of “government overreach,” his attorney, Marc S. Murphy said. Barber is in his 70s and is awaiting a heart transplant after working 40 years in the coal industry, Murphy said.

“Charley Barber is dying,” Murphy said. “These are the most important days of (his) life. He came here to tell you he’s not guilty.”

In all, nine Armstrong managers and supervisors were indicted, but five settled their cases before the trial. Hardison, Barber, the Parkway mine’s former safety director Brian Keith Casebier and Dwight Fulkerson, a section foreman, are on trial.

The workplace issues came to light when some Armstrong miners contacted a lawyer in 2014. One of the former miners set to testify, Mike Wilson, said the air was so dirty he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face down in the mine.

The trial in U.S. District Court in Louisville is expected to last two weeks.

 

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