Court: Plea violated rights of Houston BP blast victims
By JUAN A. LOZANO / Associated Press
Wednesday, May 8, 2008
HOUSTON — Federal prosecutors violated the rights of victims of a deadly 2005 explosion at a BP PLC plant when they didn't consult them about a plea agreement to settle criminal conduct in connection with the blast, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
But the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals court did not block the much-criticized plea deal, instead sending the case back to a Houston judge and asking that she fully consider the victims' objections before deciding whether to accept the agreement.
"We are confident that when those objections are considered, this sweetheart plea bargain will be ultimately rejected," David Perry, an attorney for blast victims, said in a statement.
U.S. Attorney Don DeGabrielle in Houston said his office was ready to proceed with the case.
"We are, however, disappointed by the appellate court's criticism of the government's good faith reliance upon a court's order approving our approach to meet" obligations to consult blast victims about the plea agreement, he said in a statement.
BP spokesman Neil Chapman declined to comment.
The plea deal, which has a BP subsidiary pleading guilty to a violation of the Clean Air Act, includes a $50 million fine and sentences the oil giant to three years' probation for its role in the blast.
BP formally entered its guilty plea during a February court hearing, but a decision on the deal's fate was pending before U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal when blast victims appealed the case.
The explosion, which killed 15 people and injured more than 170, occurred in Texas City, about 40 miles southeast of Houston.
Prosecutors and BP have defended the plea agreement, saying it's the harshest option available in assessing criminal punishment for the blast. A congressional committee is investigating the deal.
Family members of those killed and workers injured by the blast say the fine is insufficient. They argue federal sentencing laws allow the fine to be as high as $3.2 billion.
They also say the plea deal doesn't provide for an independent watchdog to monitor whether BP would meet its safety obligations at the refinery.
Rosenthal earlier this year rejected claims by blast victims that their rights were violated under the Crime Victims' Rights Act.
Blast victims had wanted the deal rejected because under the act, they should have been notified and consulted about the plea agreement prior to it being announced in November.
Prosecutors had argued it would have been impractical to consult all of the hundreds of victims connected to the blast before a deal was struck and any advance notification might have jeopardized the agreement.
But a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit on Wednesday disagreed with prosecutors.
"The number of victims here did not render notice to, or conferring with, the victims to be impracticable, so the victims should have been notified of the ongoing plea discussions and should have been allowed to communicate meaningfully with the government, personally or through counsel, before a deal was struck," the three-judge panel wrote.
However, the appeals court concluded it would not be appropriate for it to order that the plea agreement be rejected, saying blast victims had been allowed to state their objections through a February court hearing, "albeit much too late in the process."
"We conclude that the better course is to deny relief, confident that the district court will take heed that the victims have not been accorded their full rights," the judges wrote.
Perry said he was disappointed the appeals court did not reject the plea deal.
"These victims were first injured by (BP's) illegal conduct, then again by the illegal actions of the U.S. attorney ... and now once again by a ruling effectively approving the illegal conduct of the U.S. attorney and negating an act of Congress," Perry said.
The deal was part of an October agreement by BP to pay $373 million to settle various criminal and civil charges.
The explosion occurred after a piece of equipment called a blowdown drum overfilled with highly flammable liquid hydrocarbons. The excess liquid and vapor hydrocarbons then were vented from the drum and ignited at the startup of the isomerization unit -- a device that boosts the octane in gasoline. Alarms and gauges that were supposed to warn of the overfilled equipment did not work properly.