Sunday, January 26, 2014

Courtwatch, BP Edition, Part 1

So, one thing about living in a democracy is that the courts are open to the public.  Anyone can walk right in and (so long as you are well behaved) observe the proceedings.  No star chambers in this country (Welp, maybe NSA excluded).  

Anyway, what I wanted to talk about a case that's very important going on right now.  No, not the Nagin trial.  The various BP trials have been going on for the past few months at the Federal Courthouse on Poydras.  One of the largest, most profitable corporations on earth is on trial and any member of the public can come in and watch the proceedings.  

There have been 4 main public trials thus far:

1- The USCG/MMS Board of Inquiry, held partly at a hotel in Kenner and broadcast on CSPAN.  Not really a trial and the final report isn't (directly) admissible in court, but somewhat similar.  I was at home sick for a few days and watched a substantial portion of it and was amused at expensive corporate defense lawyers trying to file objections during the proceedings only to have the Coastie running the proceedings tell them to sit down and shut up.  One of the BP lawyers in the proceedings popped up quite a bit later.  

2- The main portion of the BP trial is going on at the federal courthouse on Poydras and Judge Barbier is supervising the proceedings.  Barbier has been extraordinarily open with the proceedings, as this Lens report details.  An overflow room with WiFi, live transcripts... Barbier is bringing a very stodgy bench into the 21st Century.  

Phase 1 focused on dividing the liability between the defendants: BP, Halliburton, Transocean, and (to a lesser degree) Cameron and Weatherford.  

Phase 2 focused on how much oil flowed (since many of the fines are on a per barrel basis) and how quickly BP acted in stemming the flow.  One interesting caveat of the second phase: it was everyone vs. BP; Halliburton, Transocean, etc. joined forces with the government to bang on BP.  

Phase 3 has yet to happen.  

No final rulings (liability, flowrate, etc.) out of the main trial have been made to date by Judge Barbier.  

3- The trial of Kurt Mix, a BP engineer who was not involved in drilling Macondo, but was involved with the capping of the well.  He was accused (and convicted) of obstruction of evidence.  There's also the somewhat related guilty plea of a Halliburton manager named Anthony Badalamenti .  

4- The (yet to begin) trial of the two BP company men on the Deepwater Horizon on manslaughter charges (amongst other charges).  February 5th is the start of that trial.  Judge Duval will handle that trial.  

I actually got to attend some of the trials in person.  I'd take off a bit early for lunch, walk over, listen to the trial, and then (depending on how much time I had left), choke down some lunch and walk back.  Some days, particularly during some of the more interesting testimony, I dawdled and was reduced to eating a crappy Subway sandwhich at my desk :-( .  

I'll start with describing the only trial to reach a conclusion first.  Kurt Mix was accused of obstruction of justice by the Feds.  Mix was one of BP's point men on the capping of the well.  He allegedly deleted emails that involved the flowrate estimation and made it harder for the Feds to make their case in Phase 2 of the main trial.  Loren Steffy, the accomplished energy journalist for Forbes and the Houston Chronicle, wrote up this background on the case as Mix's trial was about to start. Steffy wrote that the "Curious Case of Kurt Mix" didn't look like it would go well for the Feds.  

I only attended the Mix trial once, but it was very illuminating.  Judge Duval ran the proceedings.  Whereas Barbier was a bit cerebral, Duval was kind of frumpy and reminded me almost of a plumber.  Duval was fairly laid back in his management of his courtroom.  I walked into the courtroom shortly after reading the Steffy writeup and expected to see the Feds falling on their face and OH BOY WAS I WRONG!  

The prosecution team was led by a young white (Asian? his back was turned) prosecutor that I'd seen in the main trial.  He was sharp as a tack and led a devastating attack on Mix.  The prosecution was using Mix's responses on "radio buttons" relating to document retention in the aftermath of Macondo.  In a way, Mix was testifying against himself.  The prosecutors were outlining all the resources BP made available to help retain documents critical to trial.  The obvious message to the jury was Mix failed to take advantage of everything that was at his disposal.  What was also surprising is the main witness for the prosecution was BP's own in-house counsel for document retention.  A BP lawyer was throwing a BP engineer under the bus!  BP has been in the news lately for allegedly screwing over their own employees on their pensions, so I guess it isn't that surprising that one BP employee would throw another to the wolves like that, but I guess I figure I'd see them look out for their own a little better.  I guess not.  It ain't for nothing the Feds average an almost 90% conviction rate.  I learned subsequently that the lawyer leading Mix's prosecution was based out of DC and not locally.

In contrast to the prosecution lawyers, Mix's own lawyers weren't very impressive at all.  This is just my opinion and I might be wrong, but I got the sense that Mix knew things weren't going well and was leaning over to his lawyers for reassurance, and his lawyers were telling him, 'oh yeah, we've got those Feds on the ropes' (meanwhile, they're getting shellacked).  Memo to engineers: if you do screw something up don't hire your cousin Vinny to defend you.  It's better to be paying off big legal bills after an acquittal than to be spending time in the slammer.  After the conviction on 1 of the 2 counts, Mix's lawyers have filed motion after motion trying to get out from under the conviction, but I get the sense that they're trying to compensate for being so lackadaisical in the courtroom (you know, where it actually could have made a difference for Mr. Mix).  

Going on in parallel to the Mix trial was the plea of Anthony Badalamenti, a manager at Halliburton.  Mr. Badalamenti earned a civil engineering degree at Tulane in 1979 and apparently learned enough about cement to become the manager of Halliburton's Cementing Technology division by the time Macondo hit.  He plead guilty to ordering two subordinates to run simulations on whether or not the number of centralizers used on the Macondo cement job were very important to the performance of the cement job (answer: not very) and then to destroy the results of those tests and not turn them over as a part of the Macondo investigation.  There was a lot of talk about the centralizers during the USCG/MMS BoI, but they ultimately concluded that it wasn't a very big deal.  Halliburton did spend a lot of time promoting the 'BP didn't listen to our advise' theory and using the centralizer to bolster their case.  Badalamenti's actions didn't help, but ultimately didn't effect the outcome.  As a result, Judge Zainey was in a forgiving mood and handed Badalamenti a $1000 fine and probation.  "I'm truly sorry for what I did," said Badalamenti.  That was quite nice of Judge Zainey.  

If Mix had chosen to cooperate more, you have to wonder if he'd have gotten Badalamenti's generous treatment.  If Mix had better lawyers, he might have gotten off, like Steffy and myself was expecting.  Instead, he was the first individual convicted in relation to the Macondo Blowout.  

Note: some minor edits for grammar and spelling.

No comments: