Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Guest Blogger - Dan Cogdell
As the Justice Department prepares a grand jury investigation of possible crimes involved in the BP oil spill, ex-CEO Tony Hayward is looking smarter for leaving this country for reasons beyond his lack of popularity.
Multiple indictments are likely to be sought, charges could reach well up the corporate ladder and British citizens who are not in this country when indicted might have protection from “double criminality,” which prevents extradition unless the same action is a criminal offense in both countries. It’s very possible the Justice Department will stretch the envelope and that could put their use of U.S. laws in a place not covered by European Union law.
There is no question the federal government is taking dead aim at environmental crimes in the BP oil spill or that the legal artillery is formidable. Federal prosecutors were already ramping up their environmental crime filings before the Deepwater Horizon started spewing oil into the gulf. Now, with massive public pressure, this could be the environmental version of the Enron prosecutions.
This week (8/23-8/27) the U.S. Coast Guard and the Interior Department are holding hearings in Houston to further investigate the BP disaster. Witnesses who invoke the Fifth Amendment may not look like team players, but they will be taking the smartest path.
Expect prosecutors to take fullest advantage of the powerful and far-reaching tools they have available. Expect them to issue more than just wrist slaps and corporate fines out of the Refuse Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Clean Water Act. Expect them to seek jail time. There is a lot going in their favor.
Prosecutors will most assuredly rely on the “Responsible Corporate Officer Doctrine,” which allows Clean Water Act violations to be directed at even top corporate officers. Prosecutions under this theory have resulted in convictions of people who were not even at work sites and, in one case, not even working for a company but had “honorary power.” (See United States v. Hanousek, 176 F. 3rd 1116 (9th Cir. 1999), cert. denied, 528 U.S. 1102 (2000), and United States v Brittain, 931 F2d 1413 (10th Cir. 1991)) The “Responsible Corporate Officer Doctrine” may be the prosecutor’s ticket to tag BP’s hierarchical elite while soothing the related political nightmare currently facing the U.S. government.
In a Clean Water Act misdemeanor case, the government does not have to prove that anyone intentionally caused this enormous harm. Negligence is a comfortably lower bar for these prosecutors. And this isn’t BP’s first rodeo. A company culture that prosecutors contend encourages money-saving over safety has landed BP in the government’s sights time and time again, and will only bolster the prosecutor Howard Stewart’s efforts.
Whether BP employees or contractors believe they are targets or not, they must balance the idea of seeing justice done with protecting themselves and their employer. Taking the Fifth at this point may be the least popular but most prudent move.
Dan Cogdell is a Houston-based criminal defense attorney with Cogdell & Ardoin who has represented numerous clients in environmental and white-collar criminal cases.