Republican: Deepwater Horizon investigators blocked from testifying

House Republicans abruptly called off today’s congressional hearing to examine a federal probe of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, blaming the cancelation on the Obama administration’s “last-minute refusal to allow investigation team members to testify.”

The House Natural Resources Committee hearing was set to look into the final conclusions of a joint Coast Guard and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement investigation into last year’s oil spill.

Republican committee leaders, led by Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., insisted that investigators who were on the front lines probing the disaster testify about the inquiry. When the administration ultimately offered up a top BOEMRE official, they called off the hearing.

Hastings accused the Obama administration of “delaying proper oversight by suddenly refusing to allow members of the investigation team to testify.”

In a statement, the committee chairman said his panel’s staff were led to believe those joint investigation team members would be on the witness stand:

“Based on numerous conversations between committee staff and the administration, it was confirmed that investigators from the BOEM and Coast Guard team would be testifying at Friday’s hearing,” Hastings said. “It’s unacceptable for the committee not to be able to hear from the actual investigators who conducted the investigation and wrote the report.”

Obama administration officials said it would be inappropriate for career staff at the ocean energy bureau and Coast Guard to testify. They noted that line investigators cannot address the broad consequences of the probe or its recommendations, including what drilling standards and practices should be changed as a result.

According to a joint statement by the ocean energy bureau and Coast Guard:

“BOEMRE and the Coast Guard were responsive to Chairman Hastings and his Committee’s request late last week for a hearing. However, we felt strongly from the beginning it was inappropriate for BOEMRE and Coast Guard line investigators to testify, and presented alternative options. We are seeking a meeting tomorrow with the Chairman to better clarify the situation and discuss a path forward to allow the committee to accomplish its important oversight responsibilities while maintaining the process important to ensure that investigations can be conducted impartially and professionally.”

Hastings said he intends to hold the hearing after all — on Oct. 6. In a statement released Thursday evening, Hastings vowed that the top JIT investigators — and the companies cited in the panel’s report — will testify before the natural resources committee:

“The Interior Department and the Coast Guard have been notified that I expect the two chairmen of the investigative team who wrote the report to be available to appear before the Committee on October 6.”

Negotiations over the lineup are set to continue. The committee could pursue subpoenas to compel testimony from investigation members. And possible middle ground solutions involve the appearance of senior leadership from the bureau and Coast Guard who were closely involved in the joint investigation — even if they didn’t conduct the hearings in New Orleans.

But that seems unlikely to satisfy committee Republicans, who may be especially eager to hear from the ocean energy bureau’s lead investigator on the joint investigation team, who just resigned to work for Chevron. The investigator, David Dykes, left after more than a dozen years working with the ocean energy bureau and its predecessor, the Minerals Management Service. The Coast Guard’s lead investigator on the joint investigative team was Capt. Hung Nguyen.

An appearance by Dykes would give lawmakers a chance to probe rumors that tensions between the investigators and officials in Washington led to repeated delays in issuing the probe’s final report.

BOEMRE Director Michael Bromwich recently attributed the delays to “the difficulty and the complexity of putting together ar eport of this magnitude and melding the technical experience that we had in members of the investigative team with others (who played) a role in drafting the report.”

Bromwich said in a recent interview that the government faced “the dual challenges of making sure that the report is technically accurate in every respect, but also that it is readable and understandable to the lay person.”