Steffy: Call may decide fate of 2 from BP

The difference between exoneration and a lifetime in prison may come down to a 10-minute phone call.

In charging two BP rig supervisors with the deaths of 11 workers in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the government contends that when confronted with confusing results from a critical pressure test, the men ordered drilling operations to proceed without consulting their superiors in Houston.

The indictment says the pair “failed to phone engineers onshore at that time to alert them to the problems” with the pressure tests.

The success of the government’s case may come down to whether it can convince a jury of that statement. Whether the men acted alone or consulted with their bosses may prove to be a deciding factor between guilt or innocence.

In federal court in New Orleans Wednesday Don Vidrine, 65, and Bob Kaluza, 62, each pleaded not guilty to manslaughter charges.

Attorneys for Vidrine and Kaluza argue the two men are scapegoats who were simply the last link in a chain of decisions that ended in disaster. Each faces almost 200 years in prison if convicted – essentially life sentences for both.

The claim that they didn’t call shore is supported, to some extent, by the findings of a presidential commission that investigated the disaster. In its final report, the commission said “it appears” Vidrine and Kaluza “did not consult anyone on shore about the anomalous data observed during the negative-pressure test.”

It added: “had they done so, the Macondo blowout may not have happened.”

However, a footnote to that statement says claims that one of the company men called shore to discuss the test data are disputed.

“The commission staff has to date seen no direct evidence of such a call,” it said.

The only evidence comes from secondhand sources – notes made by BP investigators for the company’s internal report, released in September 2010. Vidrine, who was interviewed seven days after the accident, mentions calling Mark Hafle, a BP drilling engineer in Houston. Vidrine, according to the notes, was worried the confusing pressure readings might indicate a “kick,” or a surge of gas in the well that could have indicated a serious problem.

Hafle “said that if there had been a kick in the well, we would have seen it,” Vidrine told the BP investigators.

Vidrine hasn’t spoken publicly about the accident. Hafle didn’t mention the call in May 2010, when he testified before public hearings conducted by a joint panel of the U.S. Coast Guard and the federal agency that oversaw offshore drilling. Since then, he has invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. Hafle’s attorney declined to comment.

However, he also was interviewed by BP investigators. He told them Vidrine called him at 8:52 p.m. – less than 50 minutes before the blowout – and “talked to him about the negative pressure test,” according to investigators’ notes that were cited during other witness testimony during the public hearings.

The call lasted until 9:02 p.m., and they discussed the pressure test procedures and the results. “Don told Mark he was fully satisfied that the rig crew performed a successful negative test,” according to the notes.

The investigative notes aren’t necessarily verbatim quotes, and neither Vidrine nor Hafle were under oath. What’s more, the government’s use of the words “at that time” indicates the timing of the call, rather than the call itself, may be crucial.

We know, however, that the problems with the well began months before the April 20, 2010, explosion. The disaster was a result of a series of compounding decisions.

Vidrine told BP’s investigators that his supervisors were in the loop on key decisions and that they had discussed the pressure testing for the well by email in the days prior to the accident.

“I never had instructions that I didn’t think that people knew about – they were copied on emails – there were no problems with communication,” he said.

Now, the biggest communication problem that Vidrine and Kaluza face is proving that the communication happened.