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Plea deal returns millions to ex-Freedom executive

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Former Freedom Industries President Gary Southern on Wednesday pleaded guilty to three water pollution crimes in a deal that will send him to jail, but set the stage for him to get back $7.3 million and a Bentley luxury car that were seized when he was charged for his role in the January 2014 Elk River chemical spill.

In a hearing before U.S. District Judge Thomas Johnston, Southern pleaded guilty to negligent discharge of a pollutant, unlawful discharge of refuse into a stream, and negligent violation of a water pollution permit.

“Guilty, your honor,” Southern said three times when asked by Johnston for his plea to each of the misdemeanor counts.

Asked if he committed the crimes he was pleading guilty to, Southern added, “Yes, your honor.”

Southern, 53, faces a minimum of 30 days and a maximum of three years in prison and a fine of up to $300,000. Johnston scheduled a sentencing hearing for 2 p.m. on Dec. 16.

Under a plea deal with Southern, prosecutors agreed to drop 12 felony counts related to bankruptcy fraud allegations that Southern had tried to hide his personal wealth from Freedom’s bankruptcy case and civil lawsuits filed over the spill.

Southern is the last of six former Freedom officials to enter a formal guilty plea related to the Jan. 9, 2014, spill in which crude MCHM and other chemicals from a leaky storage tank at Freedom’s Etowah River Terminal contaminated the drinking water supply for hundreds of thousands of residents in Charleston and surrounding communities.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin touted the guilty pleas — which force four of the Freedom officials to face mandatory jail time — as a “wake-up call” to other corporate executives that, “If you place our water at risk, you face prison time…

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