U.S. Bid to Prosecute BP Staff in Gulf Oil Spill Falls Flat
Judges dismissed charges related to Deepwater Horizon blowout; tally: 3 misdemeanors
NEW ORLEANS—A critical moment in the government’s case against Robert Kaluza, who was facing a criminal charge for his role in the 2010 BP
PLC oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, came when a former colleague was called to testify.
had already pleaded guilty and was expected to bolster prosecutors’
arguments. But he had trouble articulating exactly what he—and by
extension Mr. Kaluza—may have done wrong. “I, we, uh, I may not have, I
probably didn’t press hard enough,” the Louisiana native told a federal
jury in New Orleans last week, after a long pause. “I thought I had.”
Thursday, a jury took less than two hours to find Mr. Kaluza not guilty
of the charge he had ignored warning signs leading to the explosion.
was an ignominious end to the final case in the government’s effort to
find individuals criminally responsible for the blowout on the Deepwater
Horizon. In the four years since the U.S. began its cases against five
men, prosecutors withdrew 23 counts before trial, judges dismissed 23
others and jurors acquitted on three counts. The three guilty pleas the
government secured were all misdemeanors, and the men received or will
likely receive probation.
The outcome, stemming from the largest oil spill off the U.S. coast,
in which 11 people died and more than three million barrels of oil
poured into the Gulf, is a reminder how hard it is to find individuals
culpable for catastrophes where companies were held responsible.
Defendants and their attorneys successfully argued that many people
made errors contributing to the disaster and the problems with the
cleanup. Judges dismissed charges, implying that prosecutors had
overreached, and one made clear he thought the charges had turned a
series of mistakes into a criminal act.
When David Rainey, BP’s
head of Gulf exploration and the most senior executive to face charges,
was acquitted on a false-statements charge last year, the judge in the
case, Kurt Engelhardt, said in court he thought it was the “correct verdict.”
In 2012, BP paid $4 billion in criminal penalties and pleaded guilty to
an array of crimes connected to the spill, including manslaughter
charges based on Messrs. Kaluza and Vidrine’s alleged negligence. The
outcome of individual cases means BP is in the odd position of having
pleaded guilty to crimes tied to charges against its employees that were
dismissed by courts.
BP spokesman Geoff Morrell declined to comment for this article.
after the disaster, in 2011, the Justice Department consolidated all
the BP investigations into a special task force, giving it a status
reached by few cases besides the accounting fraud at now-defunct Enron
Corp. Under pressure from Congress and the public after the 2008
financial crisis, in which few executives were charged with crimes, it
brought around 50 criminal charges, some carrying penalties of up to 10
years in prison.
Prosecutors alleged that Mr. Rainey obstructed
Congress and lied about how much oil was leaking from the well. A BP
drilling engineer, Kurt Mix, was charged with obstructing justice by deleting text messages related to efforts to stop the spill. Anthony Badalamenti,
a manager at Halliburton Energy Services Inc., which provided services
to the drilling rig, was also charged with destroying evidence.
Kaluza and Vidrine, the top supervisors at the well site, faced the
gravest accusations, stemming directly from the death of 11 men. Each
was charged with 11 counts of “seaman’s manslaughter”—an 1830s-era
statute enacted to address steamboat collisions—for negligence leading
to death at sea, plus 11 more of involuntary manslaughter based on
“gross” negligence, each carrying a potential penalty of 10 years in
“Make no mistake: While the company is guilty, individuals committed these crimes,” then-Justice Department official Lanny Breuer said in announcing the cases in November 2012.
lawyer for Mr. Kaluza, David Gerger, said: “We are grateful for the
jury: they understood technical evidence, and justice was done.” A
lawyer for Mr. Vidrine, Bob Habens, declined to comment.
lawyers for Mr. Rainey, Reid Weingarten and Brian Heberlig, said “the
Deepwater Horizon explosion was an accident, not a crime, no matter how
hard prosecutors tried to make it one.”
A lawyer for Mr. Mix,
Joan McPhee, said the prosecutors ignored evidence of Mr. Mix’s
innocence and “sought to fill the gaping holes in its case by
constructing a motive theory that had no grounding in fact.”
A lawyer for Mr. Badalamenti, who pleaded guilty and received probation, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Department spokesman Peter Carr said prosecutors from the criminal and
environmental divisions and the U.S. Attorney’s office in New Orleans
had spent years “committed to ensuring that the victims of this tragedy
obtain justice and that those responsible for one of the worst
environmental disasters in our country’s history are held accountable.”
were stymied by unexpected hurdles, including when one case was largely
dismissed in a way they couldn’t appeal, and a conviction vacated due
to problems with the jury.