Tuesday, November 23, 1999

Two sent to prison for role in coverup

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Two former managers of a Mason company were sent to prison Monday and the company that employed them was fined for its role in a coverup following a 1996 fatal accident involving Jeffrey Highfill.

        U.S. District Judge Sandra S. Beckwith fined LeMaster Steel Erectors Inc. $300,000, ordered it to repay Mr. Highfill's $3,500 funeral expenses, and put the contractor on probation for five years.

        Judge Beckwith sentenced then-supervisor Jay Holloman of West Chester, and former safety director Michael A. Onyon of Goshen, Ind., each to six months in prison, $2,000 fines and three years of supervised release.

        They admitted willfully and intentionally making false statements to investigators from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

        After watching the two sentenced in her son's fatal fall, Charlotte Highfill urged contractors to take safety more seriously.

        “We hope that this will send a message and prevent someone else from being killed,” the Mason woman said.

        Mr. Highfill was installing decking for LeMaster Steel Erectors when he fell 28 feet to the concrete foundation on Aug. 9, 1996.

        Required safety gear was not in place, but co-workers rushed to install it as Mr. Highfill lay dying.

        When investigators from OSHA came on site, some LeMaster employees lied about the safety equipment.

        The coverup persisted for much of the next two years.

        It eventually failed and LeMaster Steel Erectors and three employees became the first to be prosecuted for obstruction of justice under the federal criminal code for an OSHA violation.

        They all pleaded guilty.

        LeMaster, based in Elkhart, Ind., admitted willfully and intentionally making false statements to OSHA investigators and willfully violating feder al fall-protection regulations and causing the death of an employee.

        Robert LeMaster, president and owner of the company, apologized for his employees' failure to install proper safety equipment and for the coverup.

        Mr. LeMaster, who was not charged with wrongdoing, also apologized to OSHA. His firm promised in 1994 to upgrade safety lines any time a LeMaster employee worked more than 6 feet above the ground. “That didn't happen and I'm embarrassed by it.”

        During sentencing, Mr. Holloman said nothing but Mr. Onyon apologized to the Highfills for not “adequately enforcing our safety policies ... I'm sorry this incident happened.”

        Judge Beckwith earlier sentenced foreman Ronald Lee Creighton of Sardinia to four months in prison for lying to OSHA about which safety lines were in place when Mr. Highfill fell.

        LeMaster fired all three men when their lies became known.

        After the sentencings, members of the Highfill family rebutted a LeMaster attorney's assertion that Mr. Highfill was impaired by marijuana. They cited affidavits by toxicologists that evidence of marijuana in Mr. Highfill's blood and urine was so low that he was not under the influence when he fell.

        Monday, Prosecutor William P. Sellers IV said the judge made it clear “you must tell the truth. If you don't, you will go to jail.”

        William Murphy, head of the Cincinnati OSHA office, said falls are the No. 1 killer in the construction industry, accounting for a third of all deaths.

        Had LeMaster employees complied with OSHA rules, he said, “We wouldn't be here today.”


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