NEW ORLEANS — Two BP well-site leaders and a former executive pleaded not guilty and defiantly promised Wednesday a vigorous defense to felony charges stemming from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico disaster, a day after the British oil giant they worked for made an appearance before the same judge to answer to manslaughter charges.
Their attorneys described them as victims of a rush to judgment by the U.S. government and a multibillion dollar settlement agreed to by BP.
And the men said they are eager to tell their side to a jury — sentiments one of the defendants, Robert Kaluza, and a lawyer for another defendant, Donald Vidrine, made clear in statements on the steps of the federal courthouse in New Orleans.
“I think about the tragedy on the Deepwater Horizon every day,” Kaluza said. “But I didn’t cause this tragedy.”
Kaluza, wearing a powder blue dress shirt and a navy blazer, appeared nervous as he proclaimed his innocence.
“I put my trust, my reputation and my future in the hands of the judge and jury,” he said.
Kaluza’s attorney, Shaun Clarke, declined to discuss the details of his defense, but said his client was wrongly charged.
“After spending nearly three years and tens of millions of dollars on this investigation, the federal government needs a scapegoat. Unfortunately, they settled on Bob,” Clarke said.
Clarke added, “Justice must be done. The truth must come out. But this indictment isn’t true.”
Vidrine’s attorney, Bob Habans, questioned why a British company was given more consideration by the U.S. government by being allowed to settle the case before charges were brought than an American citizen, his client, was given. He said he didn’t learn of the indictment against Vidrine until the day it was announced on Nov. 15 and no plea deal was offered in advance.
“Whatever spin the government puts on the evidence won’t carry the day,” Habans said. “The truth will carry the day.”
Habans said his client is a law-abiding citizen who was just doing his job and following orders from on-shore managers who were making the critical decisions the day of the rig explosion.
“Don Vidrine has two lawyers. The government has hundreds of lawyers and they’ve spent millions of dollars on this investigation. And yet, they are at a disadvantage. The reason? Truth and justice are on our side,” Habans said.
An attorney for the third defendant, David Rainey, said after the hearing that his client is doing as well as can be expected.
“We plan to defend this case vigorously,” attorney Brian Heberlig told the Houston Chronicle.
Once in the courtroom, all three men were given copies of the charges against them, which they reviewed before the arraignment hearing.
U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle set trial for Jan. 28 for Rainey and Feb. 4 for Kaluza and Vidrine.
But that date is likely be to extended later, as the defendants’ attorneys are sure to argue that the case – following 2 ½ years of investigations by multiple government agencies and independent commissions — is complex and they won’t be ready to try the case in such a short time.
The judge also set bond and travel restrictions on the defendants and ordered them to turn over their passports.
Rainey will be given his passport back and be allowed to travel outside the U.S. for work purposes only, and only if government officials approve in advance, Lemelle said. Kaluza and Vidrine won’t be allowed to leave the continental U.S., and if they leave their home states and certain other locations where their attorneys work, they will have to get advance permission from the court.
None of the men spoke during the hearing, except to answer basic questions from the judge about whether they understood what was being said.
Kaluza, Vidrine and Rainey were issued notices to appear and were allowed to voluntarily surrender at the hearing. They were all allowed to go free after the hearing, subject to the terms set by Lemelle. In Rainey’s case, if he wants to leave the country for work, he must post a $400,000 bond, secured by cash or property.
Kaluza and Vidrine, well-site leaders on the Deepwater Horizon at the time of the explosion, are charged with manslaughter, accused of failing to alert on-shore managers at the time they observed clear signs that BP’s Macondo well was not secure and that oil and gas were flowing into the well. The well 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.
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.
If convicted of the maximum penalties, Kaluza and Vidrine face what would amount to the rest of their lives in prison, while Rainey faces up to 10 years in prison.
A fourth employee, former BP engineer Kurt Mix, was charged previously with obstruction for allegedly deleting text messages about the rate at which oil was flowing to the sea.
BP, meanwhile, has agreed to pay $4.5 billion to settle manslaughter, obstruction and other criminal charges and related Securities and Exchange Commission charges. A federal judge must approve the deal.
That settlement figure could pale in comparison to what BP still has yet to resolve — civil fines over the amount of oil that spilled. BP will either reach a deal with the Justice Department, or go to trial. In either case, it could be on the hook for up to $21 billion in Clean Water Act fines, alone.