House committee opens probe into BP blast plea deal
By KRISTEN HAYS and LISE OLSEN
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
March 13, 2008
A congressional committee is investigating the government's proposed criminal plea deal with BP stemming from the deadly 2005 Texas City refinery explosion, questioning whether the deal would protect workers or deter future misconduct.
House Committee on Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., alerted Attorney General Michael Mukasey to the probe in a nine-page letter today. The letter posed dozens of pointed questions about the deal's adequacy, how it was forged, prosecutors' responsibilities to include blast victims in the plea process and whether top executives are culpable.
"Every worker and consumer has a deep and abiding interest in the government taking all necessary measures to deter the kind of reckless conduct exhibited by BP in managing its refining business," the letter said.
The committee wants a meeting with prosecutors, documents related to the plea deal, and an assessment from the Department of Justice about whether the deal is an "ineffectual deterrent to future violations" given BP's history of problems including the blast itself, pipeline leaks in Alaska and manipulation of propane trading.
Brent Coon, a Beaumont attorney who led a vast investigation into the blast and BP's safety history for thousands of blast-related lawsuits, welcomed the committee probe.
"Maybe that makes all the work worthwhile. We'll have to see what the outcome is," he said.
"My point all along was that the problem with the DOJ plea is that it lets the individuals off, the fine is too light and the budget cuts aren't addressed," Coon said.
Blast survivors say a proposed $50 million fine is too low and barely scratches BP for imposing years of budget cuts that undermined the plant's safety before the disaster killed 15 people and hurt many more.
The Justice Department and BP declined comment on the House committee's letter.
The committee's concerns largely mirror those of blast victims who have decried the plea deal as too lenient and have urged U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal of Houston to reject it.
The proposed deal, unveiled by the Justice Department last October, calls for BP's North American products division to plead guilty to a felony environmental crime, pay the $50 million fine, and serve probation for three years.
BP and federal prosecutors have said in court filings that the deal is harsh enough because it requires the division that encompasses BP's U.S. refineries to become a felon, and the fine is the highest ever assessed under the Clean Air Act.
Dingell and Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who is chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee that conducts investigations, said in the letter that even if the fine is the largest imposed for a violation of the Clean Air Act, "this alone does not address whether the fine is adequate to achieve the goal of deterrence, particularly since this fine is less than a single day of profits for BP in 2006 and 2007."
BP's annual profit was $22 billion in 2006 and $21 billion last year.
The committee also said the deal "does not appear to either protect the safety of workers and residents near this refinery or ensure that a proper signal is sent to BP's senior management whose budgeting decisions led to this tragedy."
BP has repeatedly denied any link between the blast and budget cuts in 1999 and 2004 that deferred maintenance and upgrades while shrinking training and personnel.
But the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board also concluded that budget cuts, failure to invest and production pressures from top executives at BP's London headquarters jeopardized safety.
The House committee questions why individuals - particularly top executives who imposed budget cuts - appear to have avoided prosecution and how the government arrived at the $50 million fine. Prosecutors said last October that the probe is ongoing, and that individuals could be charged.
The committee also challenges whether prosecutors violated DOJ guidelines by failing to consult with blast victims before finalizing the plea deal. Those guidelines say officials should make reasonable efforts to notify victims about proposed plea negotiations and consider their views.
However, those guidelines also say that because victims might disclose what they learn in conversations with prosecutors, such consultations "may be limited to gathering information."
In court filings, prosecutors have repeatedly said they didn't consult with victims because public disclosure of plea talks before a deal was finalized could have jeopardized BP's right to a fair trial had the deal fallen through. A federal magistrate approved that approach.
Rosenthal has ruled that the government's action was proper, and that victims' right to confer doesn't equate to a right to participate in or approve a plea deal. An appeals court is considering that issue.
Rosenthal has yet to address whether the fine is large enough.