West Virginia Spill Case Conflict of Interest Arguments Heard

By JONATHAN MATTISE | January 7, 2015

A judge is mulling whether to recuse federal prosecutors from a criminal case against former executives in a massive West Virginia chemical spill.

In U.S. District Court in Charleston on Monday, attorneys for ex-Freedom Industries executives Gary Southern and Dennis Farrell reiterated arguments that U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin’s office has a conflict of interest in the case.

Their attorneys said members of Goodwin’s office and their family were victims of the company’s spill last January, which spurred a ban on using tap water for 300,000 residents for days. That presents a conflict, they said.

Federal prosecutors have argued the move would be contrary to law and would oppose public interest.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Wright said Monday the motion could turn into a mini-trial, in which members of Goodwin’s office have to describe how they were affected by the spill; for instance, how much they spent on bottled water.

Judge Thomas Johnston also questioned why Southern and Farrell didn’t want him off the case, too. Johnston said he lives outside of the region with contaminated water. But he added that he was affected while working at the federal courthouse in Charleston, among other areas of his life that were impacted.

Johnston said Goodwin’s office will stay on the Freedom Industries case while decides. He said he plans to make up his mind as quickly as possible, but did give parties until Jan. 30 to file back-and-forth documents about possible related subpoenas.

Despite requests by attorneys for Southern and Farrell, Johnston didn’t delay appearances and arraignments scheduled Thursday and Monday for several Freedom officials facing charges.

On Monday, Farrell and Southern made their first court appearances in West Virginia since their Dec. 17 indictments. Southern appeared in a Fort Myers, Florida, federal court Dec. 9 to post a $100,000 bond. He was arrested the previous day on an FBI affidavit.

Southern, Farrell, the company itself and four other officials face pollution charges. Southern also faces fraud charges related to Freedom’s bankruptcy case.

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