U.S. attorney general opens criminal probe of gulf oil spill

Attorney General Eric Holder said federal authorities have opened criminal and civil investigations into the nation's worst oil spill. (June 1)
By Theresa Vargas and Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 1, 2010; 7:44 PM

NEW ORLEANS -- Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced Tuesday that his office is using "the full weight" of its investigative power to pursue criminal and civil investigations into the oil spill that has devastated the Gulf Coast.

"The Department of Justice will ensure that the American people do not foot the bill for this disaster and that our laws are enforced to the fullest extent possible," he said.

Earlier in the day, President Obama vowed a "full and vigorous accounting" of the causes of the disaster, telling the leaders of a new commission that they should pursue the trail of blame without limits.

"They have my full support to follow the facts wherever they may lead, without fear or favor," Obama said in the Rose Garden on Tuesday after meeting with the co-chairmen of the commission, former Florida senator and governor Bob Graham and former EPA administrator William Reilly.

Holder's announcement came at an afternoon news conference in New Orleans, the same day the attorney general met with local law enforcement officials and surveyed part of the affected area.

"What we saw this morning was oil for miles and miles and miles, oil that we know has already affected plants and animal life along the coast and has impacted the lives and livelihoods of all too many in this region," he said. "This must not be forgotten."

Among the statutes his office is examining: the Clean Water Act, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Criminal prosecutors are also examining possible false statements, obstruction of justice and conspiracy, federal law enforcement sources said. They would not say if evidence of such crimes has emerged. Legal experts said this means that investigators are exploring whether BP ignored warning signs before the explosion, falsified records or statements to regulators, or tampered with testing equipment.

"As we move forward we will be guided by some relatively simple principles," Holder said. "We will ensure that every cent, every cent of taxpayer money will be repaid and that damages to the environment and wildlife will be reimbursed. We will make certain that those responsible clean up the mess that they have made. . . . And we will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law, anyone who has violated the law."

Justice Department lawyers were sent to the gulf weeks ago to monitor the spill. Holder said the investigation has been ongoing, but he would not say who had come under focus.

"We are not in a position yet where I think we have in our own minds who should be ultimately held liable," Holder said. He added that steps are being taken to ensure the investigation does not interfere with the cleanup effort, which is being spearheaded by BP. "It is in BP's interest," he said, "to keep doing what they're doing, in fact even doubling" the effort.

The investigation is virtually certain to result in a civil lawsuit against BP, which is essentially already in violation of federal environmental laws that carry a low standard of proof, experts in environmental law said. Some type of criminal case is also likely, they said.

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