BP Under Investigation

Given the unfathomable magnitude of the ongoing BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the announcement of a federal criminal investigation didn't come as a particular surprise. As one solution after another failed and the intensity of the catastrophe mounted, the crisis became political as well as environmental--with action from the Justice Department all but inevitable.

"We must ... ensure that anyone found responsible for this spill is held accountable," announced Attorney General Eric Holder in June. "That means enforcing the appropriate civil--and if warranted, criminal--authorities to the full extent of the law."

"It really depends on the old Nixon adage, 'Who knew what, and when did they know it?'" Weinstein says. "The Justice Department at this point is likely looking at whether the companies had some prior notice of safety issues, whether they knew there was a risk of a spill and they just forged forward regardless of the risk."

Media reports have cited examples of BP pushing ahead on the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon rig, despite both internal warnings and concerns expressed by outside contractors. But that doesn't mean a slam-dunk case for the government.

Diaz says there is always an underlying tension when defending executives in environmental cases between the standard white-collar tactic of withholding as much information as possible and cooperating with investigators in a way that will not bring additional obstruction charges.

In this case, the information BP feeds investigators to mitigate criminal risk for the company could ultimately be used to indict executives.

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