PIKEVILLE — For years, state officials testified Tuesday, they distrusted coal mine inspector Kelly Short ridge, calling him "conniving" and "too cozy" with coal operators. He was suspended at least twice — once for threatening violence against his colleagues and another time for failing to report serious environmental violations at a surface mine.
"I was frustrated he was not doing his job like he was supposed to be," Charles Holbrook, manager of the Pikeville regional office of the Kentucky Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement, testified in U.S. District Court.
But the state never fired Shortridge. In fact, at the end of his 24-year career, his supervisor rated him "highly effective" in a performance evaluation. Shortridge finally resigned his $45,160-a-year job in 2014, just months ahead of a felony indictment for soliciting bribes from then-state Rep. W. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, a coal operator whose mines Shortridge inspected.
Hall is the one standing trial this week, accused by federal prosecutors of bribing Shortridge in 2009 and 2010 to get favorable treatment for his Pike County surface mines. Shortridge already has pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing this summer.
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However, the testimony at Hall's trial Tuesday was largely about a rogue mine inspector — "a troublemaker," as several state officials called Shortridge — who was allowed to stay on the job.
It's difficult to fire people in state government, said Dick Brown, spokesman for the state Energy and Environment Cabinet, which includes the mine inspection agency.
"The Energy and Environment Cabinet did what it could in disciplining Mr. Shortridge. As a merit employee, he had certain protections and rights that had to be addressed while disciplinary actions were contemplated or taken," Brown, who was not at the trial, said in a statement.
"He was suspended on more than one occasion," Brown said. "When he resigned, the department was in the process of taking final actions that would have led to his eventual dismissal."
Prosecutors say Hall secretly paid Shortridge tens of thousands of dollars — sometimes through a shell corporation established in the name of Shortridge's wife — so the inspector would ignore reclamation and environmental problems at Hall's mines.
Government witnesses Tuesday included past and present state officials who said they had worried that Hall and Shortridge had too cozy a relationship. They said Hall — then a powerful state lawmaker — recommended Shortridge for a promotion to his supervisor, and when Shortridge was upset at his bosses over policy decisions, he would include Hall on his irate emails to them.
On two occasions, different commissioners of the state Department for Natural Resources felt compelled to reassign Shortridge away from Hall's mines. After one of those reassignments, Shortridge angrily declared that he might "go postal" on his workmates, drawing a 15-day suspension for threatening workplace violence. Another time, he quietly asked the inspector who got Hall's mines to trade with him. The other inspector agreed.
"It surprised me in that it was more work" for Shortridge, the other inspector, Greg Syck, testified Tuesday. "He would normally run away from work."
Hall's defense team says any money Hall paid Shortridge was for legitimate coal-related business the men conducted between themselves, not to buy special treatment for Hall's mines. They have suggested that Shortridge provided "consulting" for Hall. In response, prosecutors have said mine inspectors and coal operators are not supposed to be in business together.
On Tuesday, defense lawyers got state officials to acknowledge that Shortridge had a history of failing to cite obvious violations at mines other than Hall's. For example, the state suspended Shortridge for five days in 2009 for missing "pretty severe violations" at a mine owned by Appalachian Fuels, with no ties to Hall, testified Billy Ratliff, former director of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement.
"Kelly could have been a good inspector," Ratliff testified. "He just chose not to. He didn't go out in the field much. I just — I didn't have a good opinion of him."
During several stultifying hours of testimony about the mine inspection process, Syck, the state inspector who traded assignments with Shortridge, explained the difference between partial and complete inspections. Complete inspections must be done four times a year, and they must cover all 39 standards on the inspector's report, Syck said. Partial inspections, conducted in the intervening months, may be less comprehensive — sometimes far less, Syck said.
During cross-examination by defense lawyer Brent Caldwell, Syck said a partial inspection sometimes can consist of nothing more than driving up to a mine's entrance to examine its posted sign and permit number, making it possible to miss problems at the site.
"Drive-by inspections are not condoned," Brown, the cabinet spokesman, said later.