By Harry R. Weber and Emily Pickrell
Houston Chronicle staff writers
The federal criminal probe of the 2010 Gulf oil spill is intensifying, with particular focus on the companies involved, some of their workers and statements executives made to investigators in the disaster’s aftermath, lawyers and officials familiar with the case say.
“They’re looking more at the potential cover-up than at the actual event,” said one lawyer close to the case who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Several lawyers for workers involved with BP’s Macondo well or the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig destroyed when the well blew out in the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana have told the Houston Chronicle they expect more criminal charges soon. Others say the dearth of government legal action over the last two and a half years has stirred anxiety about what might happen.
“Their investigation is very active and detailed and they are looking at everybody and everything,” Houston attorney Guy Womack, who represents rig worker Andrea Fleytas, said Tuesday after getting off a call with a Justice Department lawyer. “They’ve assured me Andrea is neither a target nor a subject. She is strictly a witness, if even that.”
Womack said the call included no discussion about who or which companies might be charged, or when. Fleytas helped operate the rig’s sophisticated navigation machinery.
“As they should be, they have been very slow to reach out and charge somebody with a crime unless they have something to back it up,” Womack said.
To date, only one low-level worker has been charged in the case, accused of destroying text messages sought by the government.
Spokespersons for BP, Transocean, which owned the Deepwater Horizon, and the Justice Department declined comment Tuesday on the status of any criminal investigations.
There are plenty of formal and informal statements from high-level officials of BP, Transocean, cement contractor Halliburton and other companies for government investigators to review. These include testimony before Congress, depositions in civil litigation and briefings of government officials.
According to an official familiar with the probe, the government has paid particular attention to a briefing a few weeks after the well blew out in which company officials made statements about the rate at which oil was spilling and other matters to members of a congressional committee investigating the disaster. The government is trying to determine if any of the statements during the briefing were untruthful, the official said.
Lawyers for several people who participated in the briefing have not responded to requests for comment from the Chronicle in recent days.
University of Michigan law professor and former federal prosecutor David Uhlmann said he believes other people may be charged in the case, particularly if there is evidence that anyone lied to the government about the size of the spill or interfered with the criminal investigation.
“BP, Transocean and Halliburton should face criminal charges under the Clean Water Act for the spill itself, and they too could face additional criminal charges if there is evidence that their officials misled the government or obstructed justice,” said Uhlmann, who led the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section for seven years.
He said that officials at all levels have an obligation to be candid in their dealings with the government.
“Anyone within the companies who was dishonest or attempted to impede the government’s investigation should be charged criminally, but that’s a different question from whether individuals should be charged for the spill itself,” he said.
The notion that more people or the companies themselves may be charged has stirred lawyers’ offices along the Gulf Coast in recent weeks.
“Obviously, he would be concerned about the direction this took not only for himself but also for other people he knows,” said Mitch Lansden, an attorney for BP engineer Mark Hafle. “He’s on administrative leave. I think the only anxiety he would have is thinking, ‘When do we get to go on with our life?’”
A key federal panel found in 2011, among other things, that Hafle failed to investigate or resolve anomalies detected during the cementing of the Macondo well and did not run a test that evaluates the quality of the cement job.
Hafle declined to testify before the panel in the summer of 2010, citing his constitutional right against self-incrimination.
An attorney for Lee Lambert, a BP well-site leader trainee who was on the rig at the time of the explosion, said his client has been debriefed by the government and has cooperated with investigators. Lambert was present for a part of a test before the explosion that was conducted to determine the integrity of the well. BP has acknowledged workers misinterpreted the test results.
“Given the fact that we haven’t heard from the government for such a long time, given the fact he’s fully cooperated and was just a trainee, we have a certain level of comfort that he won’t be included as a defendant,” attorney Buddy Lemann said. “If anything, I would suspect he would be a witness.”