Ex-Freedom Owner Pleads Guilty in West Virginia Chemical Spill Case

By JOHN RABY | March 17, 2015

A former owner of Freedom Industries pleaded guilty Monday to federal Clean Water Act violations stemming from last year’s chemical spill in Charleston.

William Tis, 60, faces up to a year in prison when sentenced June 22 in U.S. District Court. He also faces a fine of $25,000 per day per violation, or $100,000 – whichever is greater.

But after entering his plea, Tis expressed doubt when asked by U.S. District Judge Thomas Johnston whether he committed the crime.

“I have signed my name to these documents,” Tis said. “No, I don’t believe I have committed a crime, but I am pleading guilty.”

When pressed by the judge to explain, Tis said, “I do believe I am guilty of this offense. There are people we had hired … Their failure results in my failure.”

Tis’ attorney, Kathleen Gallagher, reiterated that Tis accepted responsibility.

“I apologize for the confusion, your honor,” Tis said.

Johnston said while he accepted the plea, he planned to review the facts of the case.

“This exchange is rather unique in my experience,” the judge said.

Both Tis and Gallagher declined to comment after the hearing.

Another hearing was set later Monday for former owner Charles Herzing.

Plea hearings also were scheduled Wednesday for Freedom environmental consultant Robert Reynolds and tank farm plant manager Michael Burdette, and on March 23 for the company itself. All are charged with federal Clean Water Act violations and are expected to plead guilty.

Ex-Freedom owner Dennis Farrell and former President Gary Southern face trial later this year on charges related to the spill of a coal-cleaning agent. In addition, Southern faces charges related to Freedom’s bankruptcy.

Freedom filed for the protection eight days after the Jan. 9, 2014, leak into the Elk River in Charleston. West Virginia American Water uses the river for its water supply less than 2 miles downstream, and the spill prompted a tap water ban for 300,000 residents in nine counties for days until the system was flushed out.

In addition to his ownership in the company, Tis was Freedom’s secretary from 2004 until December 2013.

Southern, Tis, Herzing and Farrell were accused of failing to ensure that the company operated the Charleston facility in a reasonable and environmentally sound manner, and ignoring or failing to pay for repairs and maintenance needed to comply with environmental regulations.

Southern is accused of scheming to defraud Freedom’s creditors and plaintiffs who sued the company and him after the spill from a storage facility tank. The alleged scheme included attempting to protect some of his assets from possible verdicts and judgments.

One count, fraud by interstate commerce carrier, alleges that Southern sent a $6.5 million check from a personal bank account around Feb. 7, 2014, to an insurance company to be deposited in an annuity.

Southern also previously was charged with bankruptcy fraud, wire fraud and lying in oath in relation to the bankruptcy case.

An FBI affidavit says Freedom knew about critical flaws at its Charleston plant but never dealt with them.

Federal prosecutors have said the tank conditions “put an entire population needlessly at risk.”

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