BP Settles Federal Criminal Case and Attorney for Rig Worker Accuses Government of Indicting a Scapegoat

November 15, 2012 by Carl Lietz

Earlier today, the Department of Justice issued a press release announcing that it reached an agreement with BP Oil in which BP agreed to plead guilty to a number of federal criminal violations. More specifically, according to the press release, BP has agreed to enter guilty pleas to violations of various federal criminal statutes involving the Clean Water Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Obstruction of Congress, and a number of even more obscure federal criminal laws pertaining to the Seaman's Manslaughter Act. In addition to agreeing to plead guilty to these federal criminal offenses, BP also agreed to pay $4.5 billion, including $1.3 billion in criminal fines. At a press conference announcing the resolution of these federal criminal charges, Attorney General Eric Holder stated that "[t]his marks the largest single criminal fine and the largest total criminal resolution in the history of the United States."

I grew up in the Northern District of Florida and the impact that the oil spill had on the people and the environment in that area is something that hits close to home for me. My family was down on the Gulf Coast the summer that the spill occurred and we observed firsthand how the people, the economy, and the environment were unquestionably impacted in negative ways that most of us never envisioned. In addition, I still have many close friends that live in Pensacola and one of our special friends (and a fellow federal criminal defense lawyer) lives on the beach over in Alabama. For these and other reasons, although I am not particularly familiar with the "evidence" against BP, I was pleased to hear of today's criminal settlement with the company.

Sometimes, however, it feels like the Department of Justice goes too far. And, again, although I am not familiar with the evidence, I could not help feeling that way today when I read that in addition to the settlement of the criminal matters against BP, the Department indicted three former BP employees for alleged violations of federal criminal statutes. Back when the spill occurred, it was not difficult to predict that the Government would ultimately indict individuals in federal court. And today, the Government made that prediction a reality.

One of the former employees that got indicted today was BP's former vice-president of exploration for the Gulf of Mexico. In the indictment unsealed against him, the Government alleged that he obstructed justice and provided false statements in connection with the Government's investigation of the BP spill.

In addition to this higher ranking former BP employee, however, the Government unsealed indictments against two rig workers. According to those indictments, these two workers acted negligently in their supervision of key safety tests, and failed to phone engineers onshore to alert them of problems in the drilling operation. Not surprisingly, the indictments against these low level rig workers were signed by Lanny Breuer, the Assistant Attorney General, and five members of the "Deep Water Horizon Task Force." From what I have observed, when the Government devotes resources like this to a matter, indictments will inevitably follow.

The attorneys for one of these rig workers expressed what I perceive to be as the feeling of many concerning these relatively low level workers. According to this federal criminal attorney, the Government was making "scapegoats" out of the two rig workers." This attorney also pointed out that his client "was not an executive or high-level BP official. He was a dedicated rig worker who mourns his fallen co-workers every day." In the view of this attorney, "No one should take any satisfaction in this indictment of an innocent man. This is not justice."

It will be interesting to watch this case unfold. It certainly seems destined for a trial in federal court. We intend to follow it and post developments here.