Dingell, Stupak launch inquiry into DOJ plea agreement with BP

Two leading Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee announced an investigation into the Department of Justice's Oct. 22 plea agreement with BP concerning the company's violations of federal Clean Air Act provisions.

"We have examined the plea agreement with respect to BP's admitted criminal conduct that led to the March 23, 2005, explosion at its Texas City refinery, which killed 15 and injured more than 70 workers," Reps. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), the committee's chairman, and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who chairs its Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, said in a March 12 letter to US Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey.

"We question whether DOJ has followed congressional intent by recommending this plea agreement since it does not appear to either protect the safety of workers and residents near this refinery or ensure that a proper signal is sent to BP's senior management whose budgeting decisions led to this tragedy," they continued.

Under the agreement, BP subsidiary BP Products North America agreed to plead guilty to a single count of violating the Clean Air Act, pay a $50 million criminal fine and serve three years of probation. The criminal fine was the largest ever assessed for a Clean Air Act violation, DOJ said in announcing the plea agreement on Oct. 25. It added that during the probation, the company will have to spend an additional estimated $265 million to complete facility-wide relief valve studies and renovations of its flare systems.

"We also have questions about whether DOJ has fulfilled its responsibilities to victims. In particular, we want to understand whether DOJ met its obligation to give victims a timely opportunity to confer before it negotiated a plea agreement, as required by the attorney general's guidelines," Dingell and Stupak said.

They asked Mukasey and DOJ to respond to five basic questions:

Did decisions made by BP Plc., the parent company, aid and abet non-compliance by BP Products North America, which Dingell and Stupak described as "a fourth-tier subsidiary," at Texas City and, if so, did the executives have culpability, and should they have been held to account?

By charging the subsidiary instead of the corporate parent, did DOJ consider the totality of BP's corporate misconduct when assessing "the history and characteristics of the defendant" as part of the criminal penalty process?

Why didn't the plea agreement mandate future Clean Air Act compliance in addition to settlement agreement with the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality? Dingell and Stupak noted that on Jan. 14, a 32-year employee at the Texas City refinery was killed when a 500-pound steel lit was suddenly and violently blown from a vessel that was connected to an ultracracker which was being restarted, and that the US Chemical Safety Board is investigating the accident.

Is a $50 million criminal fine an adequate deterrent to future noncompliance?

Did DOJ evade the purposes and intent of the Crime Victims Rights Act and the attorney general's victims and witness assistance guidelines?

Dingell and Stupak asked Mukasey and DOJ to provide responses within 10 days, as well as documents which DOJ and the US Environmental Protection Agency prepared concerning benefits to BP in not complying to federal regulations at the refinery, communications regarding efforts to notify victims before plea negotiations were completed, and documents regarding possible consolidation of press announcements regarding this felony plea with a deferred prosecution plea of a BP propane price fixing case and a misdemeanor plea stemming from North Sea crude oil pipeline leaks in 2006.

The committee does not expect any documents which were prepared for a grand jury, the lawmakers said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com

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