Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette confirmed a story today that had been rumored for months: The FBI has sent letters to the families of the 29 victims of last year's deadly coal mine disaster at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine in West Virginia.
"As you may be aware, the FBI has instituted an investigation into various activities at UBB in an effort to determine whether any federal crimes occurred," the letter says. "In connection therewith, you may be a victim of a Federal crime."
NPR has obtained copies of the letters and we've posted a copy below. We've been asked to redact the name of the family that received the letter.
These letters to potential victims are supposed to be standard procedure when investigators discover evidence of possible federal crimes. That's what sources familiar with the federal mine disaster investigation told NPR last August. They said at the time that the FBI was preparing to send these letters then.
NPR had also reported back in April of 2010 that the FBI was investigating the possibility of federal criminal activity related to the mine explosion.
Also, NPR reported in July the existence of a federal grand jury and interviews with Upper Big Branch miners.
So, why has the FBI waited until now to tell families what they've known for months?
We've posed that question to the FBI press office and we'll let you know if and when we get a reply.
"I don't understand the point of it," says one attorney whose client received the letter. The attorney asked to remain anonymous given an ongoing relationship with federal investigators.
"My client is going to want to know what crime," the attorney adds. "The letter raises more questions than answers."
The letter goes on to provide information about the FBI's Victim Assistance Program and Victim Notification System (VNS).
"VNS is designed to provide you with information regarding the status of your case," the letter says. But then it warns, "This investigation can be a lengthy process and we request your continued patience while we conduct a thorough investigation."
This week, NPR reported Massey Energy's new June 1 deadline for victims' families for acceptance of settlements of $3 million per family. The Massey letter is dated April 14. The FBI letter is dated March 28, so it does not appear that the FBI was warning families about possible criminal culpability on the part of Massey or its employees before families agreed to settlements.
The criminal investigation has produced one federal indictment so far, charging a Massey Energy security chief with lying to federal investigators and attempting to dispose of evidence. A Massey foreman has pleaded guilty to charges he faked foreman's certification documents and lied to federal agents.