Federal investigators again try to question BP spill witnesses

BP, the government and an army of volunteers are fighting to contain and clean the millions of gallons of oil spewing from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.
By David S. Hilzenrath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 23, 2010

A federal investigative panel will begin its next round of hearings Monday into the Deepwater Horizon disaster and call witnesses who can address alleged shortcuts in the drilling of the BP oil well, problems with the failed blowout preventer and the confused scene after an explosion on the rig.

Whether all of those witnesses testify remains to be seen.

After challenges to the investigative board's authority and competence, the hearings are shaping up as a test of the panel as well as the parties under investigation.

At the previous round of hearings last month, some witnesses canceled at the last minute. One invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. Lawyers for other witnesses accused the board -- a joint panel of the U.S. Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement -- of ignoring their clients' legal rights and the rules governing the proceedings.

Toward the end of the last day of testimony, July 23, the Coast Guard officer presiding over the hearings, Capt. Hung Nguyen, implied that the board could put aside federal rules of evidence. The comment appeared to provide ammunition to the board's critics.

Referring to the federal rules of evidence, Nguyen said: "It's possible we can use it. It's possible we don't have to use it."

"It doesn't say you don't have to. It says they should be followed . . . . ," said Transocean lawyer Edward F. Kohnke IV.

"Should, not shall," Nguyen replied, according to recordings and a privately commissioned transcription.

But in the official transcript released by the panel, Nguyen's response is: "Sure. Sure."

A Coast Guard spokeswoman said that nothing in the transcript had been changed and that it is possible the person transcribing the hearing misheard the statement.

On Thursday, the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management added two legal professionals to what had been a six-member board, a move that followed complaints that the panel lacked legal expertise.

The new members are Wayne R. Andersen, a retired federal judge, and Capt. Mark R. Higgins, a Coast Guard staff judge advocate.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company