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Manslaughter, other charges considered in gulf oil spill probe

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The Justice Department is considering manslaughter charges, along with a range of other possible violations, in its criminal probe into the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, law enforcement and other sources familiar with the investigation said Tuesday.

The intensive inquiry could lead to manslaughter counts in the deaths of the 11 workers killed when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, the sources said. Any such charges would probably involve BP or Transocean, which leased the rig to BP, they said.

But the sources said no charges are imminent, and it is unclear whether they would be filed against the companies or against individual managers or executives. Experts said that if manslaughter charges are filed, they are more likely to be brought against the companies than individual managers or executives.

“I’d be surprised if they don’t prosecute BP and Transocean,” said David Uhlmann, a University of Michigan law professor and former top Justice Department environmental crimes prosecutor. “Whether individuals can be charged is a much more difficult question.’’

Spokesmen for BP and Transocean declined to comment Tuesday, as did Justice Department officials.

The possible manslaughter charges, first reported by Bloomberg News, are one line of inquiry in the wide-ranging criminal investigation of the worst oil spill in U.S. history. The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the probe is ongoing, said investigators are also examining potential violations of environmental laws and whether company officials made false statements to regulators, obstructed justice or falsified test results for devices such as the rig’s failed blowout preventer.

The Washington Post reported in July that these avenues were being pursued, along with the question of whether cozy relations between federal regulators and the companies at the center of the inquiry contributed to the disaster. The Post also reported that a team of federal investigators, known internally as the “BP squad,” had assembled in New Orleans to conduct the inquiry.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced the criminal investigation in June and signaled that the events surrounding the explosion would be scrutinized, along with the resulting environmental catastrophe. “Eleven innocent lives [were] lost,” Holder said then. “As we examine the causes of the explosion and subsequent spill, I want to assure the American people that we will not forget the price those workers paid.’’

The criminal investigation is overseen by a task force led by John Buretta, a senior counsel in the department’s criminal division in Washington, and supervised by Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer. It is on a parallel track with a civil inquiry that resulted in the Justice Department suing BP and eight other companies in December.

The lawsuit accuses BP and other firms of violating federal regulations and failing to prevent the explosion. It seeks civil penalties under federal environmental statutes.

If involuntary manslaughter charges are brought, they could lead to large fines against companies involved in the disaster or prison terms of up to eight years for individuals.

A more likely option, Uhlmann said, are charges under the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute, a law that requires prosecutors to show, for example, that workers died because of “misconduct, negligence or inattention to his duties” by someone on the rig. That charge carries unspecified fines or prison terms of up to 10 years.

But Uhlmann said proving negligence by specific workers or executives, as opposed to the companies, is “a tall order . . . individuals have defenses available to them that the company doesn’t.’’

And one law enforcement official said investigators remain unsure if manslaughter and other serious criminal charges can ultimately be brought. They require “a pretty high threshold” of proof, the official said.

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