Plea to lesser charge means no prison for ex-BP engineer in spill probe; lawyer rips DOJ

NEW ORLEANS – A former BP engineer accused of obstructing an investigation into the Gulf of Mexico oil spill by deleting a string of text messages pleaded guilty Friday to a lesser charge, avoiding prison time and ending a legal ordeal that spanned four years.

Prosecutors declined comment after dropping the obstruction charge that could have landed Kurt Mix in prison for 20 years. Instead, he was sentenced to six months of probation.

Mix’s attorney said the plea agreement resulted from an “unravelling” government case. Mix himself said he felt vindicated and relieved, but he also expressed disillusionment.

“Before this case I knew very little about our justice system and how it worked,” Mix said, reading a statement to reporters outside the federal courthouse. “I believed it was about getting to the truth. I was wrong.”

Mix, 54, pleaded guilty to “intentionally causing damage without authorization to a protected computer.” Defence attorney Joan McPhee said Mix admitted he should have gotten permission before deleting the text messages between himself and a friend — a contractor who was working with him on ways to stop the underwater oil spew that followed the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig in April 2010.

The plea marked the latest in a mixed bag of criminal prosecutions arising from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. In June, former BP executive David Rainey was acquitted on charges that he made false statements to investigators and a manslaughter trial stemming from the deaths of 11 rig workers is pending for two well-site leaders.

The texts, McPhee said, were largely personal exchanges with scant mention of the work he was doing. They were conversations peppered with references to meetings and at least one mention of the “spanking” BP was getting in the media, she said. Mostly they were about personal matters, such as home repair advice and lunch appointments.

McPhee accused the Justice Department of pursuing the case “recklessly.”

U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval said Mix had worked “assiduously” on stopping the oil spill and agreed with prosecutors’ recommendation of probation.

Prosecutors had accused Mix of trying to hamper a government investigation into what BP knew about the amount of oil spewing into the Gulf.

Jennifer Saulino, of the Justice Department’s Deepwater Horizon Task Force, referred questions to the department in Washington. A phone call was not immediately returned.

At a 2013 trial, Mix was acquitted on one obstruction charge and convicted on another. But he won a new trial on that conviction because of juror misconduct. According to court records, the jury forewoman told deadlocked fellow jurors that she had heard something outside of the courtroom that increased her confidence in voting guilty.

In November of 2012, federal authorities and BP announced a settlement of criminal cases arising from the explosion, the resulting deaths of 11 rig workers, and the aftermath. The corporation agreed to plead guilty to charges including 11 felony counts of misconduct or neglect of a vessel’s officers, one felony count of obstruction of Congress, and one misdemeanour count each under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Clean Water Act. Penalties totalled $4.5 billion.