A former BP executive can be tried on a criminal charge of lying to Congress during its oil spill investigation, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday, overturning the decision of a lower court that had dismissed the charges in May 2013.
Judge Stephen Higginson of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans said that David Rainey, a former BP exploration vice president, can indeed stand trial for obstructing Congress because a lower court judge had misinterpreted the obstruction statute when he threw the charges out.
Prosecutors accused Mr. Rainey of downplaying estimates about the quantity of oil being leaked into the Gulf of Mexico after the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion. Mr. Rainey told the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment that only 5,000 barrels of oil per day were escaping from its blown-out Macondo well when his own internal estimates indicated that more than 12 times that amount was being released.
In dismissing the charge against Mr. Rainey, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt said it was not clear if the obstruction statute applied to subcommittee investigations because the law’s language refers to “any committee of either House” – not “subcommittee” specifically. However, a three-judge panel in the appellate court said that the law’s “plain meaning” shows that the law applies to Congressional subcommittees.
“We interpret the statutory class of ‘any committee of either House,” however to include congressional subcommittees,” Judge Higginson wrote in the decision.
Judge Engelhardt also said the indictment didn’t specify that Mr. Rainey was aware of the investigation, a knowledge that the judge considered to be an essential element of the crime.
The 5th Circuit disagreed with that interpretation as well, saying that while Mr. Rainey’s indictment did not “exactly recite” that he knew of the investigation, the details of it “fairly import[ed]” that meaning.
Mr. Rainey is one of four BP employees who face criminal charges in connection with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which killed 11 workers and set off the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.