BP is preparing to plead guilty to manslaughter and other crimes arising from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico rig explosion and oil spill but isn’t expected to do that during an initial appearance Tuesday in New Orleans federal court.
Court appearances also are scheduled this week for three men who were working for the oil giant, and they already are mounting efforts to fight felony charges.
Once BP enters its planned guilty plea, a judge probably will order a pre-sentence report, in which court officials would recommend the appropriate punishment.
Assuming that determination meshes with BP’s agreement with the Justice Department announced Nov. 15, which includes a multibillion dollar fine, a federal judge would consider final approval of the plea deal.
Tuesday’s hearing is simply a first appearance for BP. At a status conference set for Thursday, the parties will discuss when BP will enter its plea, Justice Department spokeswoman Rebekah Carmichael said.
BP declined to comment on its plans for the dual court appearances.
Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle could set trial dates at a hearing Wednesday for well-site leaders Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza and former executive David Rainey. Lemelle also may set bond conditions and other restrictions on the defendants, but the workers don’t face arrest ahead of time.
Lemelle wrote in a recent filing that his spouse owns Halliburton stock and he has asked the parties to let him know by Dec. 7 whether he should recuse himself from the case. Halliburton was the cement contractor on BP’s Macondo well, which blew out and triggered the spill.
The Justice Department continues to investigate, and other people and companies could be charged.
Federal rules require a trial be set within 70 days from the date a defendant is indicted or first appears in court, whichever is later.
And while a short-term date may be set at the hearing, defense lawyers are likely to argue the case is complex, which would mean any trial could be months or even years away.
“This is as complex a case as I’ve ever had,” said Kaluza’s attorney, Shaun Clarke. “There’s no way we could be ready to try this case in 70 days.”
Clarke said his client has no intention of negotiating a plea deal with federal prosecutors.
Vidrine’s attorney, Robert Habans, said his client also expects to go to trial.
“My client is innocent, and we will vigorously defend him,” Habans said.
Rainey’s attorney, Reid Weingarten, didn’t respond to a request for comment on any plans regarding resolving the case, but he and partner Brian Heberlig said in a statement that Rainey is a man of high integrity who did nothing wrong, and they intend to fight the charges.
“We are even more disappointed that BP has succumbed to the pressure and agreed to this extortionate settlement,” they said of the company’s plea deal.
Kaluza and Vidrine are charged with manslaughter, accused of failing to alert on-shore managers when they observed clear signs that the Macondo well was unstable and that oil and gas were flowing into it. The well a mile beneath the sea blew out, causing an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that killed 11 workers. The resulting oil spill was the worst in U.S. history.
Kaluza, who according to his attorney is “devastated” by the charges, has been spending time with his family in Nevada. Vidrine lives in Louisiana and has been on medical leave. Both are still BP employees.
Rainey, a former BP vice president in charge of exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, is charged with obstruction of Congress and making false statements to law enforcement officials for allegedly understating the amount of oil that was flowing from the well. He lives in Houston.
A fourth employee, former BP engineer Kurt Mix, was charged previously with obstruction for allegedly deleting text messages about the oil flow rate after the well blew out. Mix, who lives in Katy, is scheduled for trial Feb. 25 before U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval.
BP has agreed to plead guilty to charges that include manslaughter and obstruction and pay a $4 billion criminal penalty. It also has agreed to pay $525 million to settle securities charges alleging it misstated the range of possible rates at which oil was flowing into the Gulf, information that could inform investors’ decisions about buying or selling BP stock.