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Monday, July 5, 2010

Criminal Case in Oil Spill May Be Inevitable – A Few May Go To Prison Except Obama And Congress?

BP Criminal Case in Oil Spill May Be Inevitable, Analysts Say – Bloomberg.

It’s almost a foregone conclusion, legal experts agree, that the federal investigation of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill will produce criminal charges. After all, mere negligence leading to serious oil pollution constitutes a misdemeanor under the Clean Water Act.

Prosecutors “are very likely to bring criminal charges against BP and other companies involved,” says David M. Uhlmann, a former chief of the Justice Department’s environmental crimes section who now teaches at the University of Michigan Law School, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its July 5 issue.

Whether BP or any individuals will face felony charges –or even prison time — is a more complicated question. One hint of what a broader indictment might look like comes from an unlikely source: private civil-racketeering lawsuits that have been brought on behalf of property and business owners in Alabama, Louisiana, and Florida.

One of the suits, filed on June 12 in federal district court in Pensacola, Florida, by the plaintiffs’ firm, Levin Papantonio Thomas Mitchell Echsner Rafferty & Proctor, accuses BP and Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward not only of discrete instances of pollution; it also alleges the company engaged in an illegal “enterprise” to mislead regulators over a period of years.

Included in this alleged pattern of wrongdoing was BP’s failure to improve its safety practices in response to past incidents, resulting in criminal fines, the suit says. An explosion in 2005 at BP’s Texas City refinery, which killed 15 workers, and an oil leak in 2006 from a BP pipeline in Alaska are among the episodes cited in the suit.

RICO Law

Taken together with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Florida suit alleges, these events show that BP engaged in a scheme that violated the civil provisions of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The RICO law was enacted in 1970 to help prosecutors put Mafiosi behind bars. It has been used more broadly against corporations and high-profile individuals, including junk-bond impresario Michael Milken in 1989.

It allows prosecution of people who operate or oversee an illegal enterprise, even if they did not commit the main criminal acts in question. The maximum prison term is 20 years for each count. In the hands of a bold prosecutor, the facts and theory that underpin the Levin Papantonio firm’s civil suit could add up to something more: a criminal indictment.

“I would be amazed if the U.S. government didn’t use this as a road map to some sort of criminal case,” says attorney J. Michael Papantonio. An outspoken liberal, he appears frequently on cable-TV talk shows. “This is not a case of a mistake,” he adds. “This is an intentional effort to subvert the law.”

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