By TOM FOWLER
A federal judge has dismissed a criminal charge against a
former BP executive that alleged he tried to obstruct a
Congressional investigation into the Deepwater Horizon incident
by lying about the amount of oil flowing from the well.
Prosecutors said the executive, David Rainey, lied about the
rate of oil leaking from a blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico
to members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee during a
May 4, 2010 closed-door meeting and in his responses to a May
14 letter sent by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).
The blow-out took place in
April 2010, resulting in 11 deaths and in the worst offshore
oil spill in US history.
Mr. Rainey said in both instances the estimated flow was
about 5,000 bpd, but internal BP documents from the time showed
the company believed the rate was likely much higher.
In a ruling Monday, US Southern District of Louisiana Judge
Kurt Engelhardt agreed with Mr. Rainey's attorneys that the
meeting and the letter didn't constitute a formal Congressional
inquiry, and dismissed the charge.
The flow rate issue is sensitive because civil fines that BP
will have to pay under the US Clean Water Act are based in part
on the number of barrels spilled. The final government estimate
put the rate at between 53,000 and 62,000 bpd of oil, for a
total of about 4.9 million bbl spilled.
A judge's ruling earlier this year cut that top spill size to
4.1 million bbl after giving BP credit for the oil it
successfully siphoned from the well. That could mean fines
ranging from $4.5 billion to $17.6 billion based on BP's degree
of culpability for the accident, but the company has argued the
fines would likely be well below $5 billion.
BP agreed to plead guilty to obstruction of Congress for Mr.
Rainey's conduct as part of a $4.5 billion criminal settlement
with the Justice Department announced in November.
A second charge, that Mr. Rainey lied to investigators
during a 2011 interview about how he calculated the spill rate,
still stands. He could face up to 5 years in prison if
Brian Heberlig, an attorney for Mr. Rainey, said he was
gratified by the ruling and believes the other charge should
also be dismissed.
"The second count is related to investigating conduct that
is now deemed not a crime," Mr. Heberlig said. "More than 90%
of their case was on count one."
A spokesman for the Justice Department said it is reviewing
the decision and declined further comment.
Mr. Markey said in a statement that the Justice Department
should appeal the decision.
"When a judge undercuts Congress' ability to keep companies
like BP honest, he undercuts the voice of Americans
everywhere," Mr. Markey said. "This was a Congressional
investigation, plain and simple, and this kind of narrow and
off-the wall interpretation of how Congress investigates
wrongdoing is deeply troubling."
Dow Jones Newswires