British oil giant BP pleaded guilty Thursday to more than a dozen felony charges related to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, including manslaughter and obstruction of justice. The deal will cost the company $4.5 billion, and immunize BP from further criminal prosecution over the disaster.
But while BP's corporate criminal liability may be settled, three BP employees now face federal indictments for their role in the spill that may put them behind bars for years. More indictments may follow, Attorney General Eric Holder said in a press conference Thursday.
"Our criminal investigation remains ongoing, and we'll continue to follow all credible leads and pursue any charges that are warranted," Holder said.
Indicted were two former BP rig managers, Donald Vidrine, 65, and Robert Kaluza, 62, who were charged with 22 counts of manslaughter for negligence that led to the deaths of 11 workers on the doomed Deepwater Horizon rig. David Rainey, 58, a former BP vice president, was charged with lying to Congress and to federal officials about the size of the leak from the company's runaway well.
Attorneys for all three men said they would vigorously contest the charges.
The position of the individual defendants is not helped by BP's plea deal, which included detailed admissions of guilt for the same charges that the men now hope to beat at trial.
In its plea, BP said that a "former vice president" was guilty of providing false information and withholding documents from Congress about the size of the leak. It also said the "proximate cause" of the 11 deaths on the Deepwater Horizon rig was negligence by the rig's well site leaders, Vidrine and Kaluza.
Federal prosecutors will still need to present direct evidence of guilt in order to convince a judge or jury to convict the three men. But the company's willingness to assign criminal culpability to its employees in order to end its own exposure to further prosecution leaves the three men more vulnerable than if the company had maintained a unified defense, experts said.
"They've hung them out to dry," said Oliver Houck, a professor of criminal and environmental law at Tulane University Law School.
Sam Buell, a professor at Duke University Law School and former federal prosecutor, said it was unlikely that a federal judge would allow BP's guilty plea to be introduced as evidence at trial. But he said the deal still complicated the employees' defense by creating a gaping divide between them and the company.
"Atmospherically, it's not good for these guys at all," Buell said. "It certainly would have been better to have BP's lawyers saying the same thing that they're saying."
In a statement to The Huffington Post, Reid H. Weingarten and Brian Heberlig, attorneys for Rainey, slammed the Justice Department and BP over the plea deal.
"We are profoundly disappointed that the Department of Justice is attempting to turn a tragic accident and its tumultuous aftermath into criminal activity," Weingarten and Heberlig said. "We are even more disappointed that BP has succumbed to the pressure and agreed to this extortionate settlement."
Sean Clarke, an attorney for Kaluza, said BP's plea deal would have no bearing on his client's defense.
"BP's plea deal has no binding effect on us whatsoever," Clarke said. "BP can admit whatever they want. Bob Kaluza and Donald Vidrine were not negligent."
Scott Dean, a spokesman for BP, declined to comment on the company's plea or the individual criminal cases.
A fourth BP employee, Kurt Mix, 50, was charged with obstruction of justice in April 2012 for allegedly deleting text messages describing high volumes of oil flowing from the ruptured well. The deletion of the emails was not a factor in BP's corporate plea deal with the Justice Department.
Whether the Justice Department can ensnare additional BP employees in the criminal case will likely rest on whether any of those now charged agree to cooperate in exchange for leniency, experts said.
The nature of the charges against Rainey, who is accused of orchestrating a complex cover-up to hide internal BP data over the size of the leak from both Congress and federal officials, suggests that other, more senior executives may have directed or encouraged his activities, which would expose them to prosecution, experts said. Vidrine and Kaluza were less senior employees and significantly further down the corporate hierarchy.
"Clearly when the attorney general says he is keeping the investigation going, he isn't talking about going down the chain. The only place he can continue going is up," said Houck. "Rainey isn't the only person sweating bullets tonight."
Rainey's attorneys said their client maintains his innocence.