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U.S. Overhauls Approach To BP Spill Probe

Almost a year after the huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama administration is still working to determine who is criminally responsible. Justice Department leaders quietly overhauled their approach earlier this month, creating a special task force and putting a veteran mob prosecutor in charge.

The oil gusher and explosion that killed 11 people in the gulf last April attracted attention in the highest levels of government. President Obama promised a reckoning if any laws had been broken, and the Justice Department rented office space in New Orleans, to serve as a headquarters for investigators.

"This is the most important criminal investigation in the Justice Department today," said David Uhlmann, formerly the nation's top prosecutor of environmental crimes. "It's been nearly a year since the spill began, and the Justice Department has been conducting a criminal investigation for much of that time.

"So, it's a little surprising that they've waited until now to start a task force."

'Speed Up The Resolution'

The decision to overhaul the oil spill criminal investigation came from the very top of the Justice Department. Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole, who arrived there earlier this year, has taken a hands-on approach to the case.

In an interview, Cole said he launched the task force to streamline operations. He said he wants to make sure prosecutors have all the resources they need and that they move fast.

"I think the coordination and bringing it all into one single task force is going to speed up the resolution to this case rather than slow it down," Cole said.

Cole chose John Buretta, a federal prosecutor from Brooklyn, N.Y., with experience prosecuting mob figures and terrorists, to lead the task force. Buretta also has managed complex fraud cases filled with documents.

Analysts said putting criminal prosecutors in charge instead of environmental prosecutors could mean something important for BP and other likely targets.

There certainly are people who were involved in making the decisions that led to this spill that could be charged, and frankly the criminal division might be more inclined to bring those charges.

"There certainly are people who were involved in making the decisions that led to this spill that could be charged, and frankly the criminal division might be more inclined to bring those charges," said Uhlmann, who now teaches at the University of Michigan Law School.

That's because, he said, prosecutors who deal with environmental crime often decide the company benefited much more than any individual worker did. So, they usually focus on the company and senior officials, not low-level employees of companies that pollute.

BP Under Scrutiny

Uhlmann and other former prosecutors who handled environmental crime cases said it's important that any case start with violations of clean water and anti-pollution laws.

They said they want to be sure that BP, which has faced at least four criminal investigations over alleged environmental lapses — not all related to the BP spill — doesn't get off lightly with a deferred prosecution. Those are agreements the Justice Department reaches with companies that promise to change their ways and pay financial penalties in exchange for avoiding criminal charges.

Cole didn't want to talk in detail about the investigation because it's ongoing, but he said the Justice Department wouldn't let anyone off the hook.

"The oil spill is a very serious matter," Cole said. "And if there are criminal violations that are involved in it, this will be dealt with very harshly."

Steve Solow, who led the Justice Department unit that handles environmental crimes, said the decisions in the Gulf investigation will be tough and emotional.

"When the government looks at the case, what it may find is that the only people with the knowledge that would make them potentially liable are not necessarily the people the government is really looking to target," said Solow, who is now with Katten Muchin Rosenman law firm in Washington, D.C. "These may be line workers, employees, people who in a catastrophic situation may have seen their friends injured or perish."

Justice Department leaders won't talk much about the investigation because it's still under way. But other sources tell NPR that prosecutors have been exploring three main legal theories apart from environmental violations.

First, they are looking at whether BP intentionally played down the size of the spill to investors and regulators. Next, they are going over trading records to see if executives dumped stock after the spill but before people knew just how much oil was leaking. Finally, investigators are asking whether documents may have been hidden or destroyed, which could trigger obstruction of justice laws.

BP and its lawyers didn't want to comment. The company has been busy preparing for dozens of depositions in civil lawsuits this year. Those are sessions where employees on the rig and executives on shore answer questions about what went wrong, under oath.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.