Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Mouse Runs Up the Clock (at Massey Energy)

We are all familiar with the old nursery rhyme: “Hickory, dickory, dock, the mouse ran up the clock.”  This may be an apt description for the rising waters of federal criminal prosecution in the Massey coal mine explosion investigation.  As reported in the Nov. 28, 2012 Wall Street Journal,* the former president of one of the Massey operating units unrelated to the Upper Big Branch mine has agreed to plead guilty to felony conspiracy charges including directing employees to violate safety laws.  The former president is cooperating with prosecutors (in other words, look out above) and as noted in the Journal article, “The expanded probe ‘strongly suggests’ prosecutors are ‘looking at top management’…"   Earlier this year, a former superintendent at the Upper Big Branch pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges. 

Federal prosecutors allege that safety rules were routinely violated to maximize profits.  As stated in the Criminal Information against the former president, “Mine safety and health laws were routinely violated at the White Buck Mines and at other coal mines owned by Massey, in part because of a belief that consistently following those laws would decrease coal production.” (Criminal Information, p. 4)**  The Information goes on to state:  “Furthermore, the issuance of citations and orders by MSHA [Mine Safety and Health Administration], particularly certain kinds of serious citations and orders, moved the affected mine closer to being classified as a mine with a pattern or potential pattern of violations.  That classification would have resulted in increased scrutiny of the affected mine by MSHA…” (Crim. Info. p.5)  Thus it is alleged that not only production priorities - the core objective of many businesses - but even the potential for increased scrutiny by a regulatory authority was sufficient to form the basis for a conspiracy. 

Every day managers and executives in high risk businesses make decisions to sustain and/or improve production and to minimize the exposure of the operation to higher levels of regulatory scrutiny.  The vast majority of those decisions are legitimate and don’t compromise safety or inhibit regulatory functions.  Extreme examples that do violate safety and legal requirements, such as the Massey case, are easy to spot.  But one might begin to wonder what exactly is the boundary separating legitimate pursuit of these objectives and decisions or actions that might (later) be interpreted as having the intent to compromise safety or regulation?  How important is perception to drawing the boundary - where the context can frame a decision or action in markedly different colors?  Suppose in the Massey situation, the former president instead of providing advance warnings and (apparently) explicitly tolerating safety violations, had limited the funding of safety activities, or just squeezed total budgets?  Same or different? 

*  K. Maher, "Mine-Safety Probe Expands," Wall Street Journal online (Nov. 28, 2012) may only be available only to subscribers.

**  U.S. District Court Southern District of West Virgina, “Criminal Information for Conspiracy to Defraud the United States: United States of America v. David C. Hughart” (Nov. 28, 2012).

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