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The Justice Department is trying again to establish who was legally responsible for the giant oil spill last year in the Gulf of Mexico. We're almost a year away from that spill. And the Justice Department quietly overhauled its approach to the investigation earlier this month. It created a task force and put a veteran mob prosecutor in charge.
NPR's Carrie Johnson reports on what that means for the case.
CARRIE JOHNSON: It's hard to imagine a criminal case that began with more fan-fare than the oil gusher and explosion that killed 11 people in the Gulf of Mexico last April. President Obama promised a reckoning if any laws had been broken. And the Justice Department rented office space in New Orleans, the headquarters for investigators.
Professor DAVID UHLMANN (University of Michigan): This is the most important criminal investigation in the Justice Department today.
JOHNSON: That's law professor David Uhlmann. He used to be the nation's top prosecutor of environmental crimes.
Prof. UHLMANN: It's been nearly a year since the spill began, and the Justice Department has been conducting a criminal investigation for much of that time. So it's a little surprising that they have waited until now to start a task force.
JOHNSON: The decision to overhaul the oil spill investigation came from the very top of the Justice Department. Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole arrived there early this year, and he's taking a hands-on approach to the case. Cole says he wants to make sure prosecutors have all the resources they need and that they move fast.
Deputy Attorney General JIM COLE (Justice Department): I think the coordination and bringing it all into one single task force is going to speed up the resolution of this case rather than slow it down.
JOHNSON: Cole put together a task force with experience prosecuting mob figures and terrorists. Cole says they've also managed complex fraud cases.
Mr. COLE: The oil spill is a very serious matter. And if there are criminal violations that are involved in it, this will be dealt with very harshly.
JOHNSON: Analysts say that putting criminal prosecutors in charge instead of environmental prosecutors could mean something important for BP and other likely targets. Here's Uhlmann.
Prof. UHLMANN: There certainly are people who were involved in making the decisions that led to this spill that could be charged. And frankly, the criminal division might be more inclined to bring those charges.
JOHNSON: That's because, he says, prosecutors who deal with environmental crime often decide the company benefitted a lot more than any individual worker did. So they usually focus on the company and higher-ranking officials, not low-level employees of companies that pollute.
Steve Solow led the Justice Department unit that handles environmental crimes. He says the decisions in the Gulf investigation will be tough and emotional.
Mr. STEVE SOLOW (Justice Department): When the government looks at the case, what it may find is that the only people with the knowledge that would make them potentially liable are not necessarily the people the government is really looking to target. These may be line workers, employees, people who, in a catastrophic situation, may have seen their friends injured or perish.
JOHNSON: Justice Department leaders won't talk much about the investigation because it's still going on. But other sources tell NPR that prosecutors have been exploring three main legal theories apart from environmental violations.
First, they're looking at whether BP intentionally played down the size of the spill to investors and regulators. Next, they're going over trading records to see if executives dumped stock after the spill, but before people knew just how much oil was leaking. Finally, investigators are asking whether documents may have been hidden or destroyed, which could trigger obstruction of justice laws.
BP and its lawyers didn't want to comment. They've been busy preparing for dozens of depositions in civil lawsuits this year. Those are sessions where employees on the rig and executives on shore answer questions about what went wrong, under oath.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
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