"This defendant is hardly a criminal,” said U.S. District Judge Thomas E. Johnston upon sentencing Gary Southern, who pled guilty to dumping a coal-cleaning chemical into the Elk River.
In August of 2015, Gary Southern, CEO of Freedom Industries, pled guilty to 3 of 15 charges against him, including violating the Clean Water Act and negligent discharge of a pollutant. Under federal guidelines, Southern faced 24 to 30 months in prison and a fine of up to $300,000.
The charges against Southern stem an incident at a chemical tank farm Freedom Industries operated on the Elk River, just upstream of the intake pipes for the regional water authority. On Jan. 9, 2014, about 10,000 gallons of an industrial chemical used for cleaning coal leaked out of one of Freedom's badly maintained tanks and spilled into the river. Residents of nine counties were left without drinking water for days - some even weeks.
Freedom declared bankruptcy in the wake of the spill, with the company's assets going toward cleaning up the site of its former tank farm, but damage claims have far outstripped assets.
Southern, and the five other former Freedom Industries executives, could have been forced to pay restitution for the damage the company caused from their personal fortunes, but prosecutors decided not to ask for that. The United States attorney for southern West Virginia, Booth Goodwin, said his office wanted to focus on criminal charges because determining who should receive what amount in restitution "would be difficult, if not impossible." Goodwin told reporters the message he wanted to send was simple: “If you place our water at risk, you face prison time.”
“Executives are used to writing checks,” Mr. Goodwin said. “It sends a stronger message if they have to trade their three-piece suits for a prison jumpsuit.”
Yesterday, a federal judge nixed the jumpsuit plan, sentencing Southern to just one month in jail - the minimum sentence allowed. Southern, who lives in a $1.2 million, 4,133-square-foot mansion in Marco Island, Florida, was also fined $200,000, but was not sentenced to pay any restitution.
Besides the environmental crimes, Southern was also charged with bankruptcy fraud, wire fraud, and lying under oath during Freedom Industry’s eventual bankruptcy proceedings following the toxic spill. Think Progress reported that "FBI Special Agent James F. Lafferty said in a sworn affidavit that Southern, in an attempt to protect his personal fortune of nearly $8 million and shield himself from lawsuits, developed a scheme to distance himself from the company and “deflect blame” to other parties."
Yet, even in the face of Agent Lafferty's testimony, Gary Southern's guilty plea, and the 300,000 West Virginians who had their water supply poisoned, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Johnson let Southern off with a slap on the wrist and his fortune untouched, saying, "this defendant is hardly a criminal."
The light sentence must have left Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, whose cost cutting measures ended up poisoning the drinking water of 100,000 Flint residents, smiling ear to ear.
Following his sentencing yesterday, Gary Southern was given permission to fly back to Florida on a private plane.
Photo is from YouTube