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April 25, 2012 – 11:44 am | Views: 1482

By CAIN BURDEAU and MICHAEL KUNZELMAN
Associated

Press

 

FILE - This April 21, 2010 file photo shows oil in the 

Gulf of Mexico, more than 50 miles southeast of Venice on Louisiana's tip, as a large plume of smoke rises from fires on 

BP's Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig.  The Justice Department says the first criminal charges in the Deepwater Horizon 

disaster have been filed against a former BP engineer who allegedly destroyed evidence on Tuesday, April 24, 2012. . Kurt 

Mix, of Katy, Texas was arrested on charges of intentionally destroying evidence. He faces two counts of obstruction of 

justice.  The Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, killing 11 men and spewing 200 million 

gallons of oil.  (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

FILE - This April 21, 2010

file photo shows oil in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 50 miles southeast of Venice on Louisiana's tip, as a large plume

of smoke rises from fires on BP's Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig. The Justice Department says the first criminal

charges in the Deepwater Horizon disaster have been filed against a former BP engineer who allegedly destroyed evidence on

Tuesday, April 24, 2012. . Kurt Mix, of Katy, Texas was arrested on charges of intentionally destroying evidence. He faces

two counts of obstruction of justice. The Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, killing 11

men and spewing 200 million gallons of oil. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — By

arresting a former BP engineer Tuesday, federal prosecutors for the first time showed their hand in the Gulf oil spill case,

saying they were probing whether BP PLC and its employees broke the law by intentionally lowballing how much oil was spewing

from its out-of-control well.

Two years and four days after the drilling-rig explosion that set off the worst offshore

oil spill in U.S. history, Kurt Mix, 50, of Katy, Texas, was arrested Tuesday and charged with two counts of obstruction of

justice for allegedly deleting about 300 text messages that indicated the blown-out well was spewing far more crude than the

company was telling the public at the time.

The charges are not likely to affect a proposed class-action settlement

that would resolve more than 100,000 claims by people and businesses who blame economic losses over the spill. A federal

judge is expected Wednesday to consider granting preliminary approval of the $7.8 billion civil settlement between BP and a

committee of plaintiffs.

The case against Mix brings the first criminal charges in the Justice Department’s Deepwater

Horizon probe. If convicted, Mix could get up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count. Mix was released on

$100,000 bail.

In an affidavit, the U.S. Department of Justice said it was investigating whether BP and its employees

broke the law “by intentionally understating” how much oil was leaking.

Legal experts said this was likely just the

first move by the Justice Department. The federal agency made it clear the investigation still is ongoing and suggested more

people could be arrested.

“Did anyone else know about this? Was this gentleman, shall we say encouraged or pushed to

do this? Did he do it under orders? Did he do it under duress?” said Anthony Michael Sabino, a professor at St. John’s

University School of Law in New York and an expert in white-collar crimes.

“When you’re a prosecutor you start with

the little fish and you hope the little fish helps you catch a medium-sized fish; then you go after the big fish until you

get the biggest fish of all,” Sabino added. “It’s going up the food chain … If you jump the gun, and you don’t have the

pieces in place, you ruin the case.”

Seth Pierce, a Los Angeles-based commercial defense lawyer, said the Justice

Department’s move was “almost like you would see in a mafia case, where they go and try to apply a lot of pressure on really

low-level guys in the hopes of turning them, or flipping them, into witnesses for the state.”

Pierce called Mix a

“weak spot” prosecutors might try to exploit because he no longer works for BP.

“He might not have as much loyalty to

the company,” he said.

An attorney for Mix, Joan McPhee, described the charges as misguided and that she is confident

Mix will be exonerated.

“The government says he intentionally deleted text messages from his phone, but the content of

those messages still resides in thousands of emails, text messages and other documents that he saved,” she said. “Indeed, the

emails that Kurt preserved include the very ones highlighted by the government.”

Federal investigators have been

looking into the causes of the blowout and the actions of managers, engineers and rig workers at BP and its subcontractors

Halliburton and Transocean in the days and hours before the April 20, 2010, explosion.

It is now clear that

prosecutors also are looking at the aftermath of the blast, when BP scrambled for weeks to plug the leak.

In outlining

the charges, the government suggested Mix knew the rate of flow from the busted well was much greater than the company

publicly acknowledged.

Prosecutors also said BP gave the public an optimistic account of its May 2010 efforts to plug

the well via a technique called a “top kill,” even though the company’s internal data and some of the text messages showed

the operation was likely to fail.

An accurate flow-rate estimate is necessary to determine how much in penalties BP

and its subcontractors could face under the Clean Water Act. In court papers, prosecutors appeared to suggest the company was

also worried about the effect of the disaster on its stock price.

In a statement, BP said it is cooperating with the

Justice Department.

“BP had clear policies requiring preservation of evidence in this case and has undertaken

substantial and ongoing efforts to preserve evidence,” the statement said.

The FBI said in court papers that Mix

repeatedly was notified by BP that instant messages and text messages needed to be preserved.

In public statements,

the company professed optimism that the top kill would work, giving it a 60 to 70 percent chance of success.

On May

26, the day the top kill began, Mix estimated in a text to his supervisor that more than 15,000 barrels of oil per day were

spilling – three times BP’s public estimate of 5,000 barrels and an amount much greater than what BP said the top kill could

probably handle.

At the end of the first day, Mix texted his supervisor: “Too much flow rate – over 15,000 and too

large an orifice.” Despite Mix’s findings, BP continued to make public statements that the top kill was proceeding according

to plan, prosecutors said. On May 29, the top kill was halted and BP announced its failure.

BP stock closed at $41.91

Tuesday, a drop of just 4 cents. Analysts said investors evidently recognized the charges involved just one, low-ranking

employee and saw no hint yet of any kind of larger cover-up on BP’s part.

The explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon

drilling rig killed 11 workers. More than 200 million gallons of crude oil leaked from the well off the Louisiana coast

before it was capped.

Under the Clean Water Act, polluters can be fined $1,100 to $4,300 per barrel of spilled oil,

with the higher amount imposed if the government can show the disaster was caused by gross negligence.

Tom Becker, a

fisherman in Biloxi, Miss., and head of the Mississippi Charter Boat Captains Association, said he wasn’t surprised by the

allegations.

“I don’t trust BP one bit. That’s what I’ve thought all along. It’s like, `What are they trying to

hide today?'” Becker said.

He said his mistrust of BP had led him to hold out and not settle legally with the company

over damages. He said his business has not recovered and he has no fishing trips booked for July, August or September, his

busiest months. He blames that on the lingering perception that the Gulf is ruined and on high gas prices.

“I just

wish we could get over it quick, but I don’t see it happening, even though BP wants to pay everybody off and get them to

shut up,” Becker said.

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said he was pleased “the Justice Department is focused

on holding those with criminal culpability accountable.”

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