A federal judge Monday threw out an obstruction of Congress charge against a former BP executive who had been accused of lying about the amount of oil that was flowing after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
U.S. District Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt handed a major victory to David Rainey of Houston by issuing the 44-page ruling on several pre-trial motions.
Rainey still faces a charge of making false statements to federal investigators, stemming from an interview he gave to prosecutors before he was charged. He faces up to five years in prison on that charge.
In dismissing the obstruction of Congress charge, the judge sided with the defense arguments that the government failed to allege knowledge of a pending congressional investigation and that the law Rainey was charged under does not apply to congressional subcommittee investigations.
“We’re gratified by the court’s thoughtful and well-reasoned opinion,” Rainey attorney Brian Heberlig said in a telephone interview.
Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said the agency was reviewing the decision and would have no further comment at this time.
U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat on the committee whose inquiry was the basis of the obstruction charge, said in a statement that he believes the judge made a mistake.
“When a judge undercuts Congress’ ability to keep companies like BP honest, he undercuts the voice of Americans everywhere,” Markey said. “This was a congressional investigation, plain and simple, and this kind of narrow and off-the wall interpretation of how Congress investigates wrongdoing is deeply troubling.”
Markey urged the Justice Department to appeal.
The ruling is a big blow to the government’s case against Rainey on two fronts.
First, the obstruction charge was the meat of the case against Rainey, and Rainey’s alleged actions were part of the basis for the obstruction of Congress charge that BP, as a company, has already pleaded guilty to.
Second, the government has been challenging Heberlig’s representation of Rainey, asserting that he may have a conflict of interest because he was present at the interview with government investigators that is the basis of the still pending false statements charge. The judge hasn’t yet ruled on the conflict of interest issue.
Engelhardt said in his ruling that an essential element of the obstruction charge is that the defendant knew of the inquiry.
“The indictment must allege such knowledge,” the judge said. “It does not.”
The judge added, “Even construing the allegations strongly in the government’s favor, it is simply impossible to ascertain from the indictment whether this essential element was presented to and found by the grand jury. Consequently, count one of the indictment must be dismissed.”
On the defense argument about the language in the statute, Engelhardt took a strict interpretation of the law, ruling that since the law Rainey was charged under refers specifically to statements made to any House committee and doesn’t mention subcommittees, that is another reason the charge must be dismissed.
Rainey faces an Oct. 15 trial on the remaining charge. He has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors can appeal the dismissal of the obstruction charge, though it wasn’t immediately clear if they will.
Rainey no longer works for BP. He is now president of exploration for BHP Billiton.
Two BP well-site leaders face manslaughter charges in the Gulf oil spill case, while a former BP engineer faces obstruction of justice charges. BP pleaded guilty to manslaughter, obstruction and other charges and agreed to pay $4.5 billion in criminal fines and Securities and Exchange Commission fines.
The British oil giant owned the undersea well that blew out in the Gulf off Louisiana, triggering an explosion on the Transocean-owned Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 men. The resulting oil spill was the worst offshore spill in U.S. history.
Read ongoing FuelFix coverage of the legal trials surrounding the Gulf of Mexico oil spill:
- Judge delays trial for ex-BP engineer charged in Gulf oil spill case (May 17)
- Oil spill restoration money will be used on Galveston Island (May 3)
- Gulf spill cases against former BP employees advance (May 2)
- BP to fund $340 million in early restoration projects in Gulf (April 30)
- Judge orders some BP attorney materials turned over in Gulf oil spill case (April 30)
- Mississippi becomes 3rd state to sue BP for oil spill (April 19)