Telling truth may land BP employee in jail

If the government has its way, Kurt Mix will go to jail for telling the truth.

That’s the only conclusion that can be drawn by comparing the government’s claims in two separate criminal cases related to the Deepwater Horizon – one against BP filed last month and one against Mix, the rank-and-file BP engineer who had nothing to do with the accident itself.

Mix was charged in April with allegedly deleting text messages that contained vital evidence about the rate at which oil was spewing from the ruptured Macondo well after the 2010 blowout.

In fact, Mix allegedly deleted two messages, each containing strings of texts, the electronic back-and-forth exchanges that constituted one conversation. He faces 20 years in prison if convicted, essentially a decade behind bars for each flick of the thumb.

More important, though, the government’s case against BP shows that the feds already had the information he purportedly destroyed.

In an unusual legal move, Mix’s attorneys have asked that the government’s claims against BP be entered as evidence for Mix’s defense in his own case, essentially trying to use the government’s own arguments to prove Mix’s innocence.

In recent filings, Mix’s attorneys contend that rather than obstructing the investigation, it was Mix who provided the government with the evidence it needed to charge BP last month with making false statements.

BP has agreed to plead guilty to 14 criminal counts, including a charge of lying to Congress about the flow rate.

BP was low-balling estimates of the oil flow in public statements, obstinately sticking to a “guesstimate” of 5,000 barrels a day, even as “BP subsurface engineers including Kurt Mix” were working on scenarios for capping the well that dealt with rates between 64,000 and 146,000 barrels a day, the government said in its case against BP.

Those flow estimates were shared with members of the response team, which included representatives of the departments of Energy and the Interior, the government said.

Mix’s lawyers, in a recent filing in his case, claim that officials in those departments even have flow-rate emails with Mix’s name on them.

“In responding to the blowout of the Macondo well, Kurt Mix was working with other BP engineers who were, as Mix was, openly sharing their candid flow rate estimates and models with the government officials and employees ensconced alongside Mix and his fellow engineers in the BP command center,” Mix’s lawyers said in court documents.

In other words, BP knew that its public statements about the flow rates were wrong because, at least in part, Kurt Mix told them so.

“The relevant question in this case is not whether BP executives lied to Congress or had a motive to do so, but whether Kurt Mix – a non-executive line engineer – had any plausible motive to corruptly obstruct the government’s inquiry into such conduct by others. The answer to that question is a resounding no,” the filing said.

Put another way, how could Mix, who was never subpoenaed by a grand jury, obstruct anything when he had already handed the government the smoking gun it needed to bring charges against BP?

From the beginning, the case against Mix has been an odd one. He wasn’t senior enough to be responsible for BP’s official statements on the flow rate. That apparently fell to David Rainey, the former BP vice president who is accused of sandbagging the information from Mix and others and perpetuating the company’s lies about the flow rate.

Given the irrelevance of the deleted text messages, it raises troubling questions about why Mix is being prosecuted, how the government came to discover the missing messages, and perhaps most important, why prosecutors would care.

The government isn’t answering those questions – at least not yet.

But it has now said that Mix told the truth and in doing so helped expose BP’s lies.

BP, by its own admission, lied to Congress about the magnitude of its mistake.

So why is Mix still facing 20 years in prison?

Loren Steffy, loren.steffy@chron.com, is the Chronicle’s business columnist. His commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Follow him online at blog.chron.com/lorensteffy, www.facebook.com/LorenSteffypage and twitter.com/lsteffy.