Kurt Mix, of Katy, Texas was arrested on charges of intentionally destroying evidence. He faces two counts of obstruction of justice. The Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, killing 11 men and spewing 200 million gallons of oil.
By arresting a former BP engineer Tuesday, federal prosecutors for the first time showed their hand in the Gulf oil spill case, saying they were probing whether BP PLC and its employees broke the law by intentionally lowballing how much oil was spewing from its out-of-control well, as reported by the Associated Press in New Orleans earlier today.
Two years and four days after the drilling-rig explosion that set off the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, Kurt Mix, 50, of Katy, Texas, was arrested Tuesday and charged with two counts of obstruction of justice for allegedly deleting about 300 text messages that indicated the blown-out well was spewing far more crude than the company was telling the public at the time.
The charges are not likely to affect a proposed class-action settlement that would resolve more than 100,000 claims by people and businesses who blame economic losses over the spill. A federal judge is expected Wednesday to consider granting preliminary approval of the $7.8 billion civil settlement between BP and a committee of plaintiffs.
The case against Mix brings the first criminal charges in the Justice Department’s Deepwater Horizon probe. If convicted, Mix could get up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count. Mix was released on $100,000 bail.
In an affidavit, the U.S. Department of Justice said it was investigating whether BP and its employees broke the law “by intentionally understating” how much oil was leaking.
Legal experts said this was likely just the first move by the Justice Department. The federal agency made it clear the investigation still is ongoing and suggested more people could be arrested.
“Did anyone else know about this? Was this gentleman, shall we say encouraged or pushed to do this? Did he do it under orders? Did he do it under duress?” said Anthony Michael Sabino, a professor at St. John’s University School of Law in New York and an expert in white-collar crimes.
“When you’re a prosecutor you start with the little fish and you hope the little fish helps you catch a medium-sized fish; then you go after the big fish until you get the biggest fish of all,” Sabino added. “It’s going up the food chain … If you jump the gun, and you don’t have the pieces in place, you ruin the case.”
Seth Pierce, a Los Angeles-based commercial defense lawyer, said the Justice Department’s move was “almost like you would see in a mafia case, where they go and try to apply a lot of pressure on really low-level guys in the hopes of turning them, or flipping them, into witnesses for the state.”
Pierce called Mix a “weak spot” prosecutors might try to exploit because he no longer works for BP.
“He might not have as much loyalty to the company,” he said.
An attorney for Mix, Joan McPhee, described the charges as misguided and that she is confident Mix will be exonerated.
“The government says he intentionally deleted text messages from his phone, but the content of those messages still resides in thousands of emails, text messages and other documents that he saved,” she said. “Indeed, the emails that Kurt preserved include the very ones highlighted by the government.”
Federal investigators have been looking into the causes of the blowout and the actions of managers, engineers and rig workers at BP and its subcontractors Halliburton and Transocean in the days and hours before the April 20, 2010, explosion.