More FOIA Abuse at Labor Department, MSHA

by Bob Snashall, retired Labor Dept employee (Op-Ed Charleston Gazette, Nov 7, 2008)

George W. Bush & Company did one thing well – it bagged a lot of public information and taxidermied it into secrets. The shroud of secrecy even spread over mine safety.  Mine safety?  The law envisions everybody chipping in to protect miners from the perils of fire, water, gas and roof falls.  So it helps the public to know what is going on.  My federal legal career spanning 30 years embraced both mine safety and freedom of information.

In a democracy – you know, in a government of, by and for the people – people should know what the government is up to and what they’re getting for their money. The public generally has a right to federal agency records under the Freedom of Information Act.  Presidents, Republican and Democrat, pretty much went along with it. Until W.

The Freedom of Information Act bugs Vice President Dick Cheney. To steroid W’s power, Cheney aimed to put government information in a lockbox.  At the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), disclosure had been alive and kicking for decades.  That had to stop.  What detonated W’s Man at MSHA was that the media ran a story criticizing the agency and, egads, based the story on information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)!  Challenging the official line being spun was a big no-no.  At MSHA the game was afoot.

The Bushies went for a trophy kill – mine accident files.  First they hid factual information produced under contract.  Next they nixed the release of all non-confidential witness statements. Finally they shut the lid on the entire file. Mission accomplished!

Their sites turned to other quarry – MSHA inspector notes.  These notes are factual, written with company and miner representatives present, describe dangerous developments and show the basis for enforcement actions. Companies and miners rely on the notes to determine what measures should be taken to improve safety and which federal actions should be challenged. Tough!  The notes were thrown into the black pit.

“What about the law?” you may ask.  FOIA requires the release of open case enforcement records unless the release would interfere with the case. There is a “harm” standard that must be met before the government can withhold information. No matter.  W’s MSHA guys said that just the act of answering an information request was an interference. So complying with the law was the reason why they shouldn’t have to comply with the law.  Cute.

There was a real coalition on this.  FOIA does not win popularity contests at the Department of Labor, MSHA’s Big Brother.  This Bureaucratic Park is the habitat of turfiraptors with law degrees. These creatures of Labor Legal leapt at giving cover to ditch the harm standard.  “Disclose nothing on open cases,” they chirped to the delighted Bushies at MSHA. “That’s how the rest of the Department does it.”

Until the Sago Mine disaster near Buckhannon in January 2006.  There it was announced that miners hit by an explosion were alive and coming out, which was about 180 degrees from the facts.  A person might think that this is what happens when you deal with inconvenient truth up the backside.  With “blood on the coal” Republican politicians in Congress had the Labor Secretary call off her hounds.

The open season on information disclosure was to be over.  But the wounds ooze. An anti-disclosure mindset lingers.  MSHA jerks requesters around with paper-hanging formalities for routine disclosures. It dithers in rounds of lawyer reviews with the Labor Department. It balks at disclosing victim data that can help prevent accidents.

Once upon a time, MSHA relied on its better angels. It trained its people to practice full and often informal disclosure to the public. Well, that was good enough for The Gipper.  But not for W and Dick. It is up to the next president to follow the law, let the sunshine in and not bury safety problems in a hole.

Bob Snashall worked for 30 years as a career federal employee, most of that time as an attorney in the Mine Safety and Health Divison of the Department of Labor’s Solicitor’s Office.  He retired in December 2007.

Comments

  1. #1 Ireland williams
    February 18, 2009

    James H. Taylor Mining Company Inc.
    PO BOX 1020
    Louisa, KY 41230
    606-638-0075 office
    606-638-0076 fax

    President of the United States of America 01/20/2009
    President Barack H. Obama
    Washington, DC

    As you may know, MSHA filed criminal charges against me as the 100% shareholder and of James H Taylor Mining Company, Inc., based on MSHA violations committed at James H Taylor mine #1 at Coburn Branch, near Huddy, Ky. My brother Meral Williams was listed as the operator; License Holder, Dean Francis the mine manager over operations; Mitch Lester an Chief electrician and mine superintendent ; and section foremen Monroe Maynard and Bill Vanover miner operator. I had no control over these foremen’s, their job was to enforce MSHA safety regulations. Under Kentucky State Law, It say’s the responsible parties are, the license holder, mine manager, mine superintendent , mine foreman shall be held jointly responsible, However MSHA alleged that the owner/executive is responsible even if the licensed foremen are the people responsible for maintaining safety. Even though I was not listed as operator, MSHA proceeded with a criminal trial, in which I was found guilty by a jury of willfully violating MSHA violations, cutting excessive room widths, deep cuts, which is controlled by the miner operator and the section foreman and not using enough rock dust. (cleaning and dusting). Which is the section bosses duty to make sure this is done. When this indictment come down!!! We had our company attorney to try to make a deal like other companies in the past with David Sled to plea the company guilty!!! On one violation !!! And save both sides a lot of money and time!!! But David Sled told our attorneys , That MSHA and Richard Stickler, refused to do this!!! They wanted more!!! But really this shouldn’t never happened in the first place to this company !!!! Our Safety record speaks for itself!!! I filed a Freedom of information Act letter to MSHA !! Re -questing documents to show these same violations where written to other companies several thousand times !!! I sent the FOIA letter three different times for a total of ninety (90) days!! I didn’t receive anything from the FOIA , until three months after the trial, and still didn’t get all that I had ask for, I talked to one lady at MSHA after that, which she was very nice and kind, she told me that she had done some investigation on this, and she found out, for some reason it had laid on someone desk for a long period of time , But she could figure out why this happened!!! But she would try to help!!! Finally I got some papers, but not all that I requested!!! One day i got a letter in the mail stating I would need to pay for this information if I got it!!! I wanted this information from the FOIA , to show the court that I wasn’t guilty, and to show the court that I had received Safety awards and a letter from MSHA, which stated that JHT wasn’t under a pattern of violations, and to show these violations where normal violations written to others thousand of times , That these violations where on the top ten list in the country that has been written to others thousands of times, other operators got to pay fines on with no jail time, By not getting this information caused me, not to get a fair trial!!! You could tell that the jury was very bored and knew nothing about mining laws!!! And they just wanted the trial to be over!! I am a Small Business man with very little money trying to make a living for my family and surely couldn’t afford this!!! MSHA knew this !! Richard Stickler needed this for the News Media!!! This is very wrong to send someone to jail that isn’t guilty!!! MSHA didn’t follow the mine safety act rule, by placing this mine on a pattern of violations order before seeking criminal action ,if MSHA had any problems with JHT this should have been done before they took me to court!!! This isn’t fair to me or anyone!!!
    Even more upsetting is the fact that MSHA relied on the testimony of Bill Vanover, a miner man and foreman that was fired for drug use, and Monroe Maynard, a foreman that James H Taylor Mining had fired and had under indictment for theft of mine equipment from the JHT mine. And Randy Lester mine boss and superidentant , that was fired from JHT Mining for violating safety rules, and committing workers comp fraud , he admitted this on the witness stand at my trial , I had been working with KEMI on this on Randy Lester before the indictment come about, They all lied to the jury. MSHA gave them a deal in exchange for their testimony. If you would have come to the trial you would heard the MSHA Inspectors had nothing bad to tell the jury about me, And you would herd Mike Elswick (606) 433-7742, which is the supervisor for the State of Kentucky Mine and Minerals , tell the jury , I did nothing wrong, These 3 bosses lied about me to save there butts!!! And to get even with me!! They was not one single person on the jury that knew nothing about coal mine or the mining laws, Just the bad things they seen on tv!!! How was I going to get a fair trial??? In the jury selection , when MSHA people found out that the juror knew a little about mining they requested David Sled to have them removed! If you need to know anything about the trial !!! Please feel free to call !!! Billy Shelton at (859)294-6866 office, cell phone (859) 321-2307. And one other thing!!! I don’t even work underground!!! I am not a underground foreman, and there was a lot of times I wasn’t even around this job for weeks!! Like always !!! I made someone mad down the line with my Big Mouth!!
    In 2006 only 7 criminal cases were filed by the Department of Justice for MSHA, and those were based on repeat violations in mines with poor safety records, and usually with serious accidents. MSHA wrote a long series of violations, however our mine license was never suspended by the state for any safety issues. JHT Mining had a history of no lost time accidents, and received two safety awards during the period in question. This make’s MSHA look very bad !!! What about Sago!!! Or Arocoma!!! Where is the criminal charges on them!!! They agreed to let Massey pay fines !!! They didn’t go after Don Blankenship!!! Or any of the other big company people!!! They didn’t try to put him in jail!!! You could probably guess why!!! It would seem to me to be no accident that MSHA mailed the letter to the news media and all coal companies on the Monday after the Friday the jury returned the convictions against me. Which were class A misdemeanor’s . It seems that Richard Stickler and MSHA needed to win a case in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals against someone !! So he picked a Small operator owner, Because the US Senators was putting pressure on him, for what has been going on at the larger mines that had a lot of deaths. Richard Stickler job was on the line!!! He didn’t want to go against larger companies , With these kind of charges , Bosses will lie every time something happens !! Blaming someone else!!! If you would remember back, Richard Stickler was asked by Senator Robert Byrd , What in the hell is going on at MSHA, Robert Byrd told Stickler he needed to step up and get tough, Do you think at this time Stickler would go after the Big Company with these kind of charges ? Course Not!! He would not burn any bridges with these big companies ,Because his job is in jeopardy with MSHA !! He wouldn’t burn any bridges With the Big Boys !!! So I got picked !!! A Small Business And I really don’t know why!!! I believe my troubles started with MSHA !! When Massey ,went to MSHA District 6 office, And transferred my MSHA numbers to the JHT Mine, causing JHT to be out of production for six months. Massey never owned any of the property or the JHT Mines. MSHA finally transferred the paperwork back to us six months later and JHT was finally able to restart production !! Massey wanted the JHT property which has eighty millions tons reserves sitting right in the middle of Massey reserves , This caused hard feelings at MSHA District 6 office with JHT after this happened, Dean Francis made a remark to Bennie Freeman that JHT was going to file suit on MSHA over this, and we started having problems after that!! Maybe this is what triggered that!! Who Knows!! Richard Stickler ,was so hard p for a conviction to save his job and quiet down the media because of all of the mine deaths, When the charges where handed down Richard Stickler show up at the court house to announce the charges to the news media , MSHA went as far as to coach witness, to lie to the jury!! This is what I was told from some of them that refused to testify and lie!! My brother was even told by the MSHA investigator , that he knew the bosses where not telling the truth and he knew I wasn’t guilty of anything!!! This is Very Bad!!! How many people has got in trouble over lies ?? To pick a company that got safety rewards for the two years in question. with not being on the high violators list and no deaths and no lost time accidents in the history of JHT Mining. And got a letter from MSHA stating that JHT wasn’t on any kind of pattern of violations. MSHA is sending a bad message to these boss’s of all coal companies, That its fine to break the law!!! We will get the owners and stockholders , I would never put no ones life in jeopardy!! This is just another case of the USE AND ABUSE OF POWERS!!! When is this going to stop??? Safety is always first!! I just wanted to tell my side of the story , Now , The judge gave me 18 months in jail for this !!! Without probation !!! Just because I wont admit guilt!! I Cant admit guilt!! because I did nothing wrong !! I have never in my life been in Prison until now!! But I only stayed 30 days in a medical facility, They let me out temporary, so I could receive proper treatment for my cancer!!! Because they couldn’t treat my cancer!!! I hoping that I don’t go back there!!! What is America coming too!!!! I could see jail time if someone got killed or if I was the foreman!!! The underground foreman tells the men what to do!!! I don’t even work underground!!! This has ruined my life !!!I have lost everything over this , I am broke and no where to turn!! As for the JHT Mining property!! Massey is the owner of it now!!!! Massey got what they was after!!! I am forty nine years old!!! And have always worked very hard !!!! Do you want to see someone go to Jail over lies??? I keep asking myself everyday !!! Why MSHA would go after a Small Company with a very good safety record with the documents to prove it!!! And go as far to send them to jail!! And let other companies slide past charges with a very poor safety record and many deaths on these operations !!I How would you feel if this was done to you???, I hope you Can help me ??????This story isn’t fiction it is true facts!!! I could tell you a lot more to this story !! But it would take days!!

    I seen on the news a few weeks ago, where Richard Stickler agreed and decided to let Massey pay a fine on Mine deaths to avoid criminal charges!!! Why is that!!!! Why let companies off the hook that had mine deaths with just only fines and send someone to jail that had a perfect mine safety record with no injuries and no deaths!!!

    Thanks,

    Ireland Williams
    606 454 1997

  2. #2 Dave
    December 28, 2009

    YEP Ireland i told u the thingsz that was going on down there u would not listen to me now look at you do u think all those bosses u trusted to be your eyes r going to tell the truth nope those high dollar half ass bosses screwed you i,m sorry to see it happen to ya you was good to everybody i dont know how you got in trouble you were the operater i never seen you underground someone had it out for you man and i bet the half ass boses you hired to be your eyes screwed you those bosses were doing everything againts the law specaily at night well if any body has a beef with me cause i wrote the truth and i know the truth hollor at me this is philly i,m outta here