U.S. Justice Department

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — BP put profits ahead of safety and bears most of the blame for the disastrous 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a U.S. Justice Department attorney charged Monday at the opening of a trial that could result in the oil company and its partners being forced to pay tens of billions of dollars more in damages.

The London-based oil giant acknowledged it made “errors in judgment” before the deadly blowout, but it also cast blame on the owner of the drilling rig and the contractor involved in cementing the well. It denied it was grossly negligent, as the government contended.

The high-stakes civil case went to trial after attempts to reach an 11th-hour settlement failed.

Eleven workers were killed when the Deepwater Horizon rig leased by the BP exploded on April 20, 2010. An estimated 172 millions of gallons of crude gushed into the Gulf over the three months that followed in the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Justice Department attorney Mike Underhill said the catastrophe resulted from BP’s “culture of corporate recklessness.”

“The evidence will show that BP put profits before people, profits before safety and profits before the environment,” Underhill said in opening statements.

BP attorney Mike Brock acknowledged that the oil company made mistakes. But he accused rig owner Transocean Ltd. of failing to properly maintain the rig’s blowout preventer, which had a dead battery, and he claimed cement contractor Halliburton used a “bad slurry” that failed to prevent oil and gas from traveling up the well.

BP has already pleaded guilty to manslaughter and other criminal charges and has racked up more than $24 billion in spill-related expenses, including cleanup costs, compensation for businesses and individuals and $4 billion in criminal penalties.

But the federal government, Gulf Coast states and individuals and businesses hope to convince a federal judge that the company and its partners in the ill-fated drilling project are liable for much more in civil damages under the Clean Water Act and other environmental regulations.

One of the biggest questions facing U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who is hearing the case without a jury, is whether BP acted with gross negligence.

Under the Clean Water Act, a polluter can be forced to pay a minimum of $1,100 per barrel of spilled oil; The fines nearly quadruple to about $4,300 a barrel for companies found grossly negligent, meaning BP could be on the hook for nearly $18 billion.

The judge plans to hold the trial in at least two phases. The first phase, which could last three months, is designed to determine what caused the blowout and assign percentages of blame to the companies involved. The second phase will determine how much crude spilled into the Gulf.

During opening arguments, BP and its partners pointed the finger at each other in a tangle of accusations and counter-accusations. But BP got the worst of it, from its partners and the plaintiffs in the case.

The U.S. Supreme Court announced Friday that it will hear another case challenging the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a key measure of the Civil Rights Movement that has been used to defend the rights of minority voters as recently as the last election cycle.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case Shelby County v. Holder, an Alabama case that claims states and municipalities with special restrictions under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act have made sufficient progress and should no longer be required to comply with these restrictions. Section 5 requires states and municipalities that have a history of discrimination to have any changes to their voting laws approved by the U.S. Justice Department or certain federal courts, but has been using the same formula to determine which areas should receive these restrictions since 1965.

Since 1965, Congress has not changed the list of jurisdictions covered by Section 5.

Section 5 of the act, set in 1965 and originally scheduled to expire in 1970, has been reauthorized four times by Congress. It is set to expire next in 2031.

Nine states, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, and other municipalities are affected by the Section 5 restrictions. The act has been applied recently by the Justice Department in Texas to block the passage of voter ID laws and to challenge redistricting.

The Supreme Court last declared Section 5 constitutional in 1966.

MISSOULA, Mont. — The U.S. Justice Department is investigating the way Missoula police, prosecutors and the University of Montana responded to reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

The federal investigation was disclosed Tuesday after the agency received complaints that the allegations were not properly handled.

It will look at all 80 sexual assaults reported by women in Missoula over the past three years. Eleven sexual assaults involving university students have been reported in the past 18 months, agency officials said Tuesday.

“The allegations that the University of Montana, the local police department and the county attorney’s office failed to adequately address sexual assaults are very disturbing,” U.S. Attorney Eric Holder said in a statement.

The federal agency said it would investigate allegations that police, the university’s Office of Public Safety and the Missoula County attorney’s office engaged in gender discrimination by failing to investigate reports of sexual assault against women.

Printed on Wednesday, May 2, 2012 as: Feds to investigate U. Montana for mishandling assault cases

NEW ORLEANS — Federal prosecutors brought the first criminal charges Tuesday in the Gulf oil spill, accusing a former BP engineer of deleting more than 300 text messages that indicated the blown-out well was spewing far more crude than the company was telling the public at the time.

Kurt Mix of Katy, Texas, was arrested and charged with two counts of obstruction of justice for allegedly destroying evidence.

The U.S. Justice Department made it clear that the investigation is still going on and suggested that more people could be arrested. In a statement, Attorney General Eric Holder said prosecutors “will hold accountable those who violated the law in connection with the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.”

Federal investigators have been looking into the causes of the blowout and the actions of managers, engineers and rig workers at BP and its subcontractors Halliburton and Transocean in the days and hours before the April 20, 2010, explosion.

But the case against Mix focuses only on the aftermath of the blast, when BP scrambled for weeks to plug the leak. Even then, the charges are not really about the disaster itself, but about an alleged attempt to thwart the investigation into it.

In court papers, the FBI said one of the areas under investigation is whether the oil company intentionally lowballed the amount of crude spewing from the well.

In outlining the charges, the government suggested Mix knew the rate of flow from the busted well was much greater than the company publicly acknowledged.

Prosecutors also said BP gave the public an optimistic account of its May 2010 efforts to plug the well via a technique called a “top kill,” even though the company’s internal data and some of the text messages showed the operation was likely to fail.

An accurate flow-rate estimate is necessary to determine how much in penalties BP and its subcontractors could face under the Clean Water Act. In court papers, prosecutors appeared to suggest the company was also worried about the effect of the disaster on its stock price.

The charges came a day before a federal judge was to consider granting preliminary approval of a $7.8 billion civil settlement between BP and a committee of plaintiffs.

In a statement, BP said it is cooperating with the Justice Department and added: “BP had clear policies requiring preservation of evidence in this case and has undertaken substantial and ongoing efforts to preserve evidence.”

The FBI said in court papers that Mix had been repeatedly notified by BP that instant messages and text messages needed to be preserved.

Mix, who resigned from BP in January, appeared on Tuesday afternoon before a judge in Houston, shackled at his hands and feet, and was released on $100,000 bail. His attorney had no comment afterward. If convicted, Mix could get up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count.

The engineer deleted more than 200 messages sent to a BP supervisor from his iPhone containing information about how much oil was spilling out, then erased 100 more messages to a contractor the following year, prosecutors said. Some of the messages were later recovered via forensic computer techniques.

Many of the messages had to do with an effort to plug up the well with heavy mud injected under high pressure.

In public statements, the company professed optimism that the top kill would work, giving it a 60 to 70 percent chance of success.

On the day the top kill began, Mix estimated in a text to his supervisor that more than 15,000 barrels of oil per day were spilling — three times BP’s public estimate of 5,000 barrels and an amount much greater than what BP said the top kill could probably handle.

At the end of the first day, Mix texted his supervisor: “Too much flow rate — over 15,000 and too large an orifice.” Despite Mix’s findings, BP continued to make public statements that the top kill was proceeding according to plan, prosecutors said. On May 29, the top kill was halted and BP announced its failure.

The company’s stock dropped 15 percent on the next trading day, the government said.

David Uhlmann, a University of Michigan law professor who was chief of the Justice Department’s environmental crimes section, said the charges are probably “just the first of what will be multiple criminal charges.”

“It could be the sign that the government believes there was a more far-reaching cover-up about the size of the spill,” he said.

BP stock closed at $41.91 Tuesday, a drop of just 4 cents. Analysts said investors evidently recognized the charges involved just one, low-ranking employee and saw no hint yet of any kind of larger cover-up on BP’s part.

The explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed 11 workers. More than 200 million gallons of crude oil leaked from the well off the Louisiana coast before it was capped.

Under the Clean Water Act, polluters can be fined $1,100 to $4,300 per barrel of spilled oil, with the higher amount imposed if the government can show the disaster was caused by gross negligence.

Al Sunseri, whose family-owned oyster business was damaged by the spill, said there was little real news in the arrest of Mix. “I personally believe it’s so involved that we could never really understand the magnitude of the bad players involved,” he said.

Billy Nungesser, president of hard-hit Plaquemines Parish who has long accused BP of misleading the public about the spill, said: “We’re just glad that the truth, and all the truth, will come out. Where crimes were committed, BP needs to pay the price.”

Printed on Wednesday, April 25, 2012 as: Engineer charged on BP oil spill for allegedly deleting evidence

Trayvon Martin

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

SANFORD, Fla. — An unarmed black teenager shot to death by a neighborhood watch captain told his girlfriend he was being followed shortly before the confrontation that killed him, a lawyer said Tuesday as federal and state prosecutors announced they would investigate.

“’Oh he’s right behind me, he’s right behind me again,’” 17-year-old Trayvon Martin told his girlfriend on his cellphone, the Martin family’s attorney said.

The girl later heard Martin say, “Why are you following me?” Another man asked, “What are you doing around here?’” attorney Benjamin Crump said.

The phone call that recorded Martin’s final moments was disclosed as the U.S. Justice Department opened a federal civil rights probe into the Feb. 26 shooting and the local prosecutor convened a grand jury to investigate.

The neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, has not been charged and has said he shot Martin, who was returning to a gated community in Sanford after buying candy at a convenience store, in self-defense after Martin attacked him. Police say Zimmerman is white; his family says he is Hispanic.

The case has ignited racial tensions in this Orlando suburb of 53,500 people, sparking rallies and a protest in Gov. Rick Scott’s office on Tuesday. The Rev. Al Sharpton is joining Sanford city leaders at a town hall meeting later Tuesday to discuss the investigation.

Police say Zimmerman was bleeding from his nose and the back of his head, and told police he had yelled out for help before he shot Martin.

Crump told reporters Tuesday it was Martin who cried out when a man bearing a 9mm handgun came at him.

Martin called his 16-year-old girlfriend in Miami several times on Feb. 26, including just before the shooting, Crump said. The discovery of the lengthy conversations, including one moments before the shooting, was made over the weekend by Martin’s father by checking his son’s cell phone log, Crump said.

“She absolutely blows Zimmerman’s absurd self-defense claim out of the water,” Crump said of Martin’s girlfriend, whose name was withheld.

Martin, who was in town from Miami to visit his father in Sanford, told the girl on his way back from the store he’d taken shelter the rain briefly at an apartment building in his father’s gated community, Crump said. Martin then told the girl he was being followed and would try to lose the person, Crump said.

“She says: ‘Run.’ He says, ‘I’m not going to run, I’m just going to walk fast,’” Crump says, quoting the girl.

After Martin encountered Zimmerman, the girl thinks she heard a scuffle “because his voice changes like something interrupted his speech,” Crump said. The phone call ended before the girl heard gunshots.

The last call was at 7:12 p.m. Police arrived at 7:17 p.m. to find Martin lying face down on the ground.

Zimmerman was handcuffed after police arrived and taken into custody for questioning, but was released by police without being charged. Police have interviewed Zimmerman two times since then.

Crump called the treatment patently unfair and asked if Martin would have received the same treatment if he had been the shooter.
“We will not rest until he is arrested. The more time that passes, this is going to be swept under the rug,” Crump said.

Crump said he plans to turn over information about the call to federal investigators; a grand jury in Seminole County is also likely to subpoena the records. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is also involved in the state case.

Former federal prosecutors said there are limitations to a Justice Department civil rights probe, which typically would involve a sworn law enforcement officer accused of abusing his authority.

In this case, they said, it’s not clear whether Zimmerman had any actual law enforcement authority or if the Sanford Police Department did anything improper. Zimmerman had a permit to carry a gun, but it was not required for his neighborhood watch patrol.

“I think the community has the feeling that there’s some type of cover-up,” said Jeffrey Sloman, former U.S. attorney in Miami. “At least the department’s involvement makes sure it gets some review. He wasn’t a police officer. I’m sure that this is going to be a tough case to prosecute.”

Authorities may be hamstrung by a state “Stand Your Ground” law that allows people to defend themselves with deadly force and does not require a retreat in the face of danger. Asked Tuesday if that law needs change, Republican Gov. Rick Scott said “it’s always positive to go back and think about existing laws.”

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said it is sending its community relations service this week to Sanford to “address tension in the community.”

Seminole County State Attorney Norm Wolfinger said a grand jury will meet April 10 to consider evidence in the case.

An online petition urging local authorities to prosecute Zimmerman has drawn more than 500,000 signatures at website Change.org. About 50 defense attorneys and protesters filled the lobby in the governor’s office Tuesday to deliver a letter seeking an independent investigation and a task force to study racial profiling. They applauded when Scott came out of his office to talk to them.

“I will make sure justice prevails,” Scott said. “I’m very comfortable that (state law enforcement) is going to do the right thing. They’re not going to let somebody do something wrong and get away with it.”

Sharpton is attending the town hall meeting at a local church Tuesday night to discuss how the investigation is being handled. Students rallied on Monday at Florida A&M University’s campus in Tallahassee and outside the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center.