Prosecutors ask federal judge to accept Halliburton’s Gulf spill guilty plea

Halliburton and the Justice Department are asking a federal judge to accept the cement contractor’s guilty plea to destroying evidence in the probe of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

In a joint filing in U.S. District Court in New Orleans on Thursday night, they said the deal reached in July that includes a $200,000 fine and three years of probation is fair and reasonable.

“In arriving at the agreed-upon charge and admission of guilt, as well as the fine and terms of probation, the United States has considered a vast amount of complex factual and legal information developed over more than three years,” the filing said.

The government says Halliburton has turned over hundreds of thousands of documents and made numerous employees available to be questioned. Whether any Halliburton employees could face charges remains unclear.

Judge Jane Triche Milazzo will make the decision on Halliburton’s plea at a hearing next Thursday. It’s unclear who will enter the plea to the misdemeanor charge for Halliburton, though it will likely be one of the company’s lawyers.

Separately, Halliburton made a voluntary contribution of $55 million to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation that was not conditioned on the court’s acceptance of its plea agreement, the Justice Department has said.

Federal prosecutors say that after BP’s Macondo well blew out off the coast of Louisiana, triggering an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers, Halliburton, which provided the cement for the well, looked at whether the number of centralizers used on the final production casing could have contributed to the blowout.

Use of centralizers can help keep the casing centered in the wellbore away from the surrounding walls as it is lowered and placed in the well.  Centralization can be significant to the quality of subsequent cementing around the bottom of the casing.

Halliburton had recommended to BP the use of 21 centralizers in the Macondo well.  BP chose six centralizers instead.

Prosecutors say that the month after the blowout, a Halliburton official directed a senior program manager to run two computer simulations of the Macondo well final cementing job. The simulations indicated that there was little difference between using six and 21 centralizers.  The program manager was directed to, and did, destroy the results, the Justice Department said.

In June 2010, similar evidence also was destroyed when Halliburton’s cementing technology director asked another, more experienced, employee to run simulations again comparing six versus 21 centralizers.  The employee  reached the same conclusion and, like the program manager before him, was then directed to “get rid of” the simulations, federal prosecutors say.

Efforts to forensically recover the original destroyed computer simulations during ensuing civil litigation and federal criminal investigation were unsuccessful, prosecutors say.

As part of the plea agreement, the Justice Department said it has agreed to advise federal agencies that may bar Halliburton from new federal contracts following its guilty plea that the company provided significant cooperation to the criminal probe and agreed to accept its responsibility. BP was barred from lucrative federal contracts after its guilty plea to manslaughter and other criminal charges in the oil spill case.

BP and rig owner Transocean have already pleaded guilty to criminal charges in the case. A civil trial over the disaster is set to resume Sept. 30. Billions of dollars in fines and damages are at stake in the trial.