Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, a previously published James Gill column appeared in Thursday’s edition instead of his latest column. Here’s the new one:
The feds must have felt they had no choice but to file criminal charges after the BP oil spill in the Gulf. It doesn’t seem like such a good idea now. Although the feds have spent untold but huge sums over the years, nobody has gone to prison, and it appears that nobody ever will. More than 50 charges were filed, but only three convictions, all for lousy misdemeanors, were won.
Back in 2010, with 11 rig workers dead and oil washing up all along the coast, the public wanted retribution, and prosecutors promised to deliver it. BP made no attempt to deny responsibility or avoid paying for its sins, leaving the Justice Department to determine whether company employees had been criminally negligent or reckless. Because this was the country’s largest environmental disaster, it would have seemed likely that the feds could find plenty of blame to lay on individual employees. Prosecutors announced, with the usual hoopla, that they had five in their sights.
BP put up no fight — its name had become such anathema that rolling over was the only option — and did not dispute that high crimes had been committed in its name. Thus did BP pay more than $4 billion in fines for felonies that it now appears were never committed. That sum, if not exactly a drop in the ocean, was small in relation to BP’s overall liability, however. The company limped away after coughing up more than $20 billion overall.
This was all not much more than a bookkeeping operation, albeit on a gigantic scale, and the only real challenge for the Justice Department was to ensure that evil-doers on the BP payroll did not get away with any felonies that led to all the death and destruction. It wasn’t enough to punish BP for a “corporate culture” that set profits above safety. BP could pay fines, but those who had broken laws to further its greedy ends could go to prison, and the feds made it plain they were keen to see it happen. Whatever blame “corporate culture” bore, top executives who established it got a pass, however. Those selected for indictment came from the middle ranks, where the fateful decisions were supposedly made on the night of the catastrophe. Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, well site leaders before and during the spill, appeared to be in the most serious trouble; each was charged with 11 homicides.
But the courts ruled that the 1838 statute under which they had been charged with “seaman’s manslaughter” did not apply to oil rigs. The feds then evidently conceded that they could not prove manslaughter under any modern definition and left Kaluza and Vidrine to face just one charge each of violating the Clean Water Act. It is not unusual for prosecutors to settle for a downgraded offense, but you will seldom see a climb-down this spectacular.
Vidrine opted to cop a plea. Although this presumably will land him with probation and the various aggravations that go with a criminal record, his future certainly now looks brighter than it did a year ago. Kaluza, however, went for broke on the Clean Water rap and appeared for trial last week, when the government called Vidrine as a witness against him. It sure didn’t help, for the jury needed only two hours to find Kaluza not guilty and bring the whole BP investigation to a whimpering end. The federal armies who worked for years on the individual criminal cases must blush to have promised so much and delivered so little.
The collapse of the cases against Vidrine and Kaluza was merely the final chapter in a tale of federal overreach. The highest-ranking executive indicted, BP Vice President David Rainey, was acquitted of lying to federal investigators about how much oil was leaking from the rig into the Gulf. The feds initially had better luck with drilling engineer Kurt Mix, who was convicted of obstructing justice by deleting text messages documenting the recovery effort from his phone.
But, after that conviction was thrown out because of jury misconduct, the feds declined a rematch and did not request prison time when Mix pleaded guilty to damaging a protected computer. For that peccadillo, he was put on probation for six months. The only other man with a criminal conviction on his record over the oil spill is Anthony Badalamenti, cementing director of Halliburton, which installed the rig. Badalamenti got a year’s probation after admitting to the destruction of evidence.
That was such a pathetic haul that federal prosecutors might consider a little less ballyhoo next time disaster strikes.
James Gill’s email address is email@example.com.