Federal jury finds engineer not guilty in BP oil spill case
A federal jury in New Orleans on Thursday found a former BP rig engineer not guilty on a charge that his negligence caused the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill to initially go undetected, the Associated Press reports.
Robert Kaluza had been charged with one violation of the federal Clean Water Act and faced a year in prison. Kaluza’s defense lawyer, Shaun Clarke, told the jury that had already finished his watch aboard the oil rig and was not the one who mistook the test results on a possible leak, which was corroborated by other rig workers.
The jury deliberated less than two hours before finding Kaluza not guilty. A co-defendant, Donald Vidrine, plead guilty in December to one charge of violating the Clean Water Act and is scheduled for sentencing April 6. If the judge follows the prosecution’s recommendation for probation rather than jail time, all five criminal prosecutions of individuals for the oil spill will have resulted in no time behind bars.
Prosecutors told the jury that Kaluza and Vidrine botched a pressure test that would have shown gas and oil leaking into the Gulf.
While the U.S. government reached a criminal settlement and record civil penalties in the billions of dollars against BP, only four mostly lower-ranking employees and one former BP executive were charged criminally. And those cases, including Kaluza’s, largely fell apart in court, the AP reported in December, when Vidrine pled guilty.
Vidrine and Kaluza had also been charged with seaman’s manslaughter—the charges were dismissed by a judge, and that ruling upheld last March by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals—and with involuntary manslaughter. The oil rig explosion caused 11 deaths.
Prosecutors then dismissed the manslaughter charges, a DOJ spokesman said in a statement, “because circumstances surrounding the case have changed since it was originally charged, and after a careful review the department determined it can no longer meet the legal standard for instituting involuntary manslaughter charges.”
In the other cases, Anthony Badalamenti, a former manager for Halliburton Energy Services Inc., pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for destroying evidence and was sentenced to one year of probation; and former BP executive David Rainey was acquitted in June of charges that he manipulated calculations to indicate a much lower amount of oil entering the Gulf. A judge dismissed a charge that Rainey obstructed a congressional investigation.
And Kurt Mix, a former BP engineer was charged with obstruction of justice but pleaded guilty to a lesser charge involving the deletion of text messages without BP’s permission. In an open letter published in the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.) in November, Mix complained of a raid on his home by FBI agents with guns drawn after he’d already left for work, leaving his wife to deal with the shock.
In 2013, Mix wrote, his lawyers learned that prosecutors had not turned over exculpatory evidence. “All three members of the Justice Department task force who had pursued me so relentlessly then withdrew from the case. So we started over in August 2013 with a new Justice Department team.”
It went to trial and he was found guilty of one obstruction of justice charge—but the jury forewoman had gone against the judge’s instructions and introduced extraneous information heard in a courthouse elevator about other BP cases and the verdict was set aside. Mix then was offered the deal.
“The problem in the Gulf Oil spill is not that the government tried to hold individuals responsible,” David Uhlmann, a former chief of the Department of Justice’s environmental crimes section and now a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, told the AP in December. “The problem is that the responsibility lies with the senior corporate management that created a corporate culture that promoted risk taking and did not place sufficient emphasis on safety and environmental protection.”