Relatives of some of the 11 men killed in the 2010 Gulf of Mexico rig explosion want a federal judge to reject British oil giant BP’s multibillion-dollar settlement of criminal charges stemming from the disaster.
The dissent is unlikely to block the deal, but it could prompt the judge to modify the terms, a legal expert says.
In an order this week, U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance of New Orleans gave victims until Jan. 16 to submit written statements about the plea agreement.
Vance scheduled a hearing for Jan. 29 on whether to accept the agreement, and said she would hear from victims who notify the court in advance. She didn’t specify whether that includes victims of both the explosion and the oil spill that followed.
BP has agreed to plead guilty to 14 criminal charges, including manslaughter and obstruction of Congress. It also has agreed to pay a $4.5 billion fine, which would resolve the criminal charges as well as related Securities and Exchange Commission violations.
‘Time of forgiveness’
Kin of some of the victims plan to write the court opposing the deal.
“I think they are glad to get out with just $4.5 billion,” said Nelda Winslette, whose grandson, Adam Weise of Yorktown in South Texas, was killed on the rig. “BP is so big that the only way you can hurt them is in the pocketbook, and I don’t think that’s enough.”
Winslette also said she believes a trial would result in the whole truth coming out about what caused BP’s undersea well to blow out, triggering an explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that killed Weise and the other workers. She said the judge should reject the deal.
“That well was giving them such a problem for so long,” Winslette said. “Something should have been done way before it blew out.”
Weise’s mother, Arleen Weise, agreed. “They should make them go to trial,” she said.
Courtney Kemp-Robertson, who was married to rig worker Roy Wyatt Kemp of Jonesville, La., when he died in the blast, said the plea agreement doesn’t account adequately for all of BP’s actions before the disaster.
“It’s hard to deal with every day, knowing the truth will probably never come out,” she said. “People in higher positions knew what was going on, but you’ll never hear their names be mentioned.”
The BP plea agreement, if approved, would resolve all criminal liability against the company.
Four individuals also face criminal charges, and more could be charged in the ongoing Justice Department probe.
Shelley Anderson said she plans to submit a letter to the court about the loss of her husband, Jason Anderson, of Midfield in Matagorda County.
“I don’t think $4 billion is enough to hurt BP the way they hurt us,” she said.
Geneva Manuel, who lost her son, Blair Manuel of Gonzales, La., on the rig, said a trial could reveal more about what happened than has come out in previous investigations. She declined to say, however, whether she will formally oppose the plea agreement.
“We are in a time of forgiveness right now,” Manuel said.
University of Michigan law professor David Uhlmann, a former federal prosecutor who has followed the case, said the victims have a right to address the court.
“I expect the judge to consider their views carefully and perhaps to ask the parties to make some adjustments to their agreement,” Uhlmann said. “But it is unlikely that the core elements of the deal will not be approved by the court.”
Uhlmann said the judge could request changes to aspects of the plea bargain.
“One area where I would expect her to focus is the payment schedule,” he said. “Under federal law, criminal sentences must be paid immediately unless the defendant lacks the ability to pay at the time of sentencing. Clearly, BP has the ability to pay immediately.”
BP’s agreement allows it to pay the proposed $4 billion criminal penalty over five years, and the $525 million Securities and Exchange Commission penalties over three years.
Uhlmann said that even if Judge Vance tightens the payment schedule, he doesn’t expect BP to back out of the deal.
BP declined to comment. The Justice Department didn’t respond to a request for comment.
All 4 to fight allegations
Vance has ordered a pre-sentence investigation in which probation officials will assess the appropriate punishment.
And she wants BP and the government to file papers explaining why they believe the plea agreement “adequately reflects the seriousness of the offenses and accepting the agreement satisfies the statutory purposes of sentencing.”
If the judge rejects the plea agreement, BP can withdraw its plea and go to trial.
The four individuals charged have said they’ll fight the allegations.
Lawyers for BP well-site leaders Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza have asked a judge to delay their February trial on manslaughter charges because they need at least another year to prepare. Former executive David Rainey, who is charged with obstruction of Congress, already has been granted a trial delay.
Former BP engineer Kurt Mix, accused of deleting text messages about the amount of oil flowing from BP’s well after it blew out, also faces charges.