NEW ORLEANS The federal judge who presided over the trial of a former BP engineer found guilty of obstructing justice in the government’s investigation of the Deepwater Horizon disaster has denied a defense motion to disqualify him from the case.
In a strongly worded Feb. 13 order, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. blasted a potential conflict-of-interest claim raised by Kurt Mix’s attorneys. They said the judge was tainted by the fact that he filed a claim against BP seeking payment, including punitive damages, for oil damage to his Grand Isle fishing camp after the 2010 spill.
The New Orleans Advocate reports Duval’s ruling called the argument “naive at best and disingenuous at its worst.”
Mix, a former BP engineer who calculated how much oil was gushing into the Gulf of Mexico after the Macondo well blew out, was found guilty in December of one count of obstructing justice for deleting a string of text messages in an alleged effort to hamper the government’s criminal investigation of the deadly disaster.
In his order, Duval said his claim in BP’s civil litigation had nothing to do with Mix’s case. “Simply because some of the same facts are adduced at two trials does not make the outcome in one trial affect the other,” he wrote.
“A guilty verdict in the Mix trial means nothing in the Deepwater Horizon matter. His actions are removed in time from the issues in the civil trial,” Duval continued. “The actions concerning fraudulent flow rate occurred from April through August of 2010. Mr. Mix’s deletions occurred in October of 2010, after the flow had ended.”
Duval is slated to hear defense motions on March 13 to acquit Mix or hold a new trial.
Mix’s attorneys have asked the judge to vacate the jury’s Dec. 18 decision, alleging misconduct because one juror said in an interview after the trial that another juror acknowledged overhearing a conversation in the courthouse elevator that made it easier to render a guilty verdict.
Mix’s sentencing is scheduled for March 26.
During a status conference in May 2012 — the same month Mix was indicted — Duval told defense lawyers and prosecutors about his sullied beachfront property and stated that he was entitled to seek compensation from BP. “However, such compensation cannot be sought through the Deepwater Horizon Court Supervised Settlement Program,” the judge noted in the minutes of the phone call.
At the time, attorneys for Mix and BP, as well as prosecutors for the U.S. Department of Justice, said in court filings that they did not object to Duval presiding over the case.
Because the settlement’s terms barred sitting judges on the New Orleans federal bench from recovering economic losses from the multibillion-dollar court-supervised settlement, Duval joined the litigation in 2013 by filing a separate three-page form allowing him to bring a civil claim against BP on his own.
In their motion supporting the judge’s recusal, Mix’s attorneys said they inferred from his initial disclosure that Duval “had no plans to file any sort of lawsuit against BP, let alone file a lawsuit seeking punitive damages and adopting allegations that BP and its employees (including Kurt Mix) willfully and wantonly misled the public” about efforts to try to kill the flow of oil from the BP well.
Duval said in his 34-page order last Thursday that his disclosure didn’t mean he was relinquishing his ability to file a claim but that he “simply had not made a final decision.”
Mix’s attorneys should not have assumed that Duval wouldn’t later file a claim, the judge wrote, considering the amount of public attention that Grand Isle received in the wake of the disaster, which killed 11 men and is widely considered the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.