Gulf Oil Spill Investigation 'High Priority' For Justice Over the past several months, senior Justice Department officials have visited the Gulf to examine critical pieces of evidence. Some legal experts wonder whether, in addition to possible criminal charges against the companies involved, the department may also prosecute individuals.
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Oil Spill Investigation A 'High Priority' For Justice

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Oil Spill Investigation A 'High Priority' For Justice

Oil Spill Investigation A 'High Priority' For Justice

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Now to New Orleans, where a federal judge has created a security zone around BP's collapsed oil rig. It's the legal equivalent of taking yellow police tape, and draping it around the watery crime scene. In this case, the potential crime involves the catastrophic oil spill that's threatened the Gulf. And even though the investigation is taking place underneath the water's surface, NPR's Carrie Johnson reports there's a lot going on at the Justice Department.

CARRIE JOHNSON: The Justice Department wants everyone to know it hasn't forgotten about the oil spill this year. Gary Grindler is the department's second-in-command, and he described the investigation this way.

Mr. GARY GRINDLER (Deputy Attorney General, Department of Justice): This investigation is a very high priority for the Department of Justice. So senior officials, up to the top, are very involved.

JOHNSON: Over the past several months, top-ranking Justice officials, including Grindler, visited the Gulf to look at critical pieces of evidence, like the four-story-high blowout preventer.

Mr. GRINDLER: A tremendous number of resources are being devoted to this. There are at least 40 attorneys that are involved in both the civil division and the criminal side of the house. We have U.S. attorneys' offices along the Gulf that have been affected, that are actively involved.

JOHNSON: This investigation could be a long haul. The Justice Department has leased office space across the street from the courthouse in New Orleans, and inside those offices, prosecutors are going through documents and building a case.

David Uhlmann used to be a prosecutor. These days, he teaches at the University of Michigan, but he's closely following the oil spill investigation.

Professor DAVID UHLMANN (Former Prosecutor, University of Michigan): Proving that there was negligence on the criminal side, proving that there was an oil spill on the civil side, these are relatively easy matters for them to prove, based on what we already know.

JOHNSON: Uhlmann says criminal charges against BP and Transocean, which operated the rig, could be a foregone conclusion. The only real issue, he says, is how much the companies will pay to settle allegations they released oil into the Gulf.

Uhlmann thinks charges are more likely against Halliburton, too, after a presidential commission found the company used faulty cement to seal the well. Investigators are also looking at the big picture: the corporate culture of BP, and how it may have foreshadowed the rig disaster.

Mr. UHLMANN: And then the really big question mark is what will happen with individuals. If the Justice Department decides that there are individuals who should be charged, it's very likely that they would contest the charges, because they could go to jail.

Ms. JANE BARRETT (Former Prosecutor): In the last 10 years, what we've seen is a tendency just to go with the corporate plea.

JOHNSON: That's Jane Barrett. She's a former prosecutor.

Ms. BARRETT: In particular, the individuals that get charged are those who are affiliated with - you know, not with your Fortune 200 companies, but smaller companies.

JOHNSON: Barrett says it can be difficult to prove any one employee knows enough about safety problems to become the target of criminal charges - so difficult that the federal Justice Department never charged the captain of the Exxon Valdez with wrongdoing after that disaster.

The new DOJ investigation could be complicated by another factor: Some of the managers on the oil rig already are invoking their rights to remain silent.

But Grindler, the deputy attorney general, says authorities are considering every legal tool at their disposal.

Mr. GRINDLER: There are a number of statutes that are clearly at play: the Clean Water Act, the Oil Pollution Act, the Migratory Bird Act and the Endangered Species Act.

JOHNSON: Experts says there's another law, too: the Seaman's Manslaughter Statute from the 1800s. Unlike most environmental laws, the Seaman's Statute allows the government to bring felony charges if workers onboard a vessel, like the oil rig, die because of neglect from the ship captain or ship owner.

In all, 11 men died on the Deepwater Horizon. Prosecutors are keeping the life rafts as evidence.

And remember that crime-scene security zone in the Gulf of Mexico? The judge says no one is supposed to touch it until October 2011, giving the Justice Department at least another year to plug away at its huge investigation.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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