Criminal probe of oil spill to focus on 3 firms and their ties to regulators

Blamed by many for the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill, it is believed that BP chief executive Tony Hayward will resign his post in October and take a job with the company's joint venture in Russia, TNK-BP.
By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A team of federal investigators known as the "BP squad" is assembling in New Orleans to conduct a wide-ranging criminal probe that will focus on at least three companies and examine whether their cozy relations with federal regulators contributed to the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, according to law enforcement and other sources.

The squad at the FBI offices includes investigators from the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard and other federal agencies, the sources said. In addition to BP, the firms at the center of the inquiry are Transocean, which leased the Deepwater Horizon rig to BP, and engineering giant Halliburton, which had finished cementing the well only 20 hours before the rig exploded April 20, sources said.

While it was known that investigators are examining potential violations of environmental laws, it is now clear that they are also looking into whether company officials made false statements to regulators, obstructed justice or falsified test results for devices such as the rig's failed blowout preventer. It is unclear whether any such evidence has surfaced.

One emerging line of inquiry, sources said, is whether inspectors for the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency charged with regulating the oil industry -- which is itself investigating the disaster -- went easy on the companies in exchange for money or other inducements. A series of federal audits has documented the MMS's close relationship with the industry.

"The net is wide," said one federal official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

The Justice Department investigation -- announced in June by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and accompanied by parallel state criminal probes in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama -- is one of at least nine investigations into the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Unlike the public hearings held last week in Kenner, La., by a federal investigatory panel, the criminal probe has operated in the shadows. But it could lead to large fines for the companies and jail time for executives if the government files charges and proves its case.

Justice Department officials declined to comment Tuesday. Holder, in an interview with CBS News this month, confirmed that investigators are conducting a broad probe. "There are a variety of entities and a variety of people who are the subjects of that investigation," Holder said.

In an additional avenue of inquiry, BP disclosed in a regulatory filing Tuesday that the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission are looking into "securities matters" relating to the spill, although no more details were included.

Scott Dean, a spokesman for London-based BP, said the company "will cooperate with any inquiry the Justice Department undertakes, just as we are doing in response to other inquiries that are ongoing."

Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for Transocean, a former U.S. firm now based in Switzerland, declined to comment, as did Teresa Wong, a spokeswoman for Houston-based Halliburton.

Halliburton informed its shareholders about the Justice Department probe in its July 23 quarterly report to securities regulators. It also noted that the department warned the company not to make "substantial" transfers of assets while the matter is under scrutiny.

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