The Los Angeles Times covered the story:
The Justice Department on Tuesday unveiled the first criminal charges in its investigation of the 2010 BP oil spill: two counts of obstruction of justice filed against a former BP engineer accused of destroying records describing the rate at which oil was flowing from the broken well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
The engineer, Kurt Mix, was involved in efforts to plug the well as well as internal BP efforts to estimate the amount of oil leaking from it in the first months after the spill. Prosecutors allege that Mix deleted two text message strings even after he was told by BP to preserve them.
In one string, Mix allegedly stated that the flow rate on the evening of May 26, 2010, was "over 15,000" barrels per day. At the time, prosecutors note, BP's public estimate of the rate was 5,000 barrels per day.
The charges show that federal prosecutors are not only interested in the handling of the drilling operation before the April 20, 2010, Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 men, but also in the actions company officials took afterward, as crude gushed from the undersea well for 89 days, wreaking environmental havoc and a public relations catastrophe for the British oil giant.
The charges did not offer much of a hint as to how extensive the criminal reckoning could eventually be.
Writing for the Christian Science Monitor, Pratik Jones comments on the prosecutorial tactic involved:
While more criminal arrests are expected, the indictment against Mix – a mid-level engineer who had his pulse on how much oil was blowing out of the compromised well a mile below the Gulf of Mexico – has the earmarks of a common prosecutorial tactic in corporate cases: Single out a weak link in a company’s armor and put pressure on that person to testify on the government’s behalf.
Mix was released on $100,000 bail on Tuesday. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted on both counts.
“As a prosecutor, that’s the first thing you look for, a weak link,” says Jane Barrett, an environmental law professor at the University of Maryland. “And somebody obstructing an investigation is pretty easy to prove … and the goal would be to use this as a way to negotiate a cooperator deal, where [Mix] would, in exchange for [a reduced sentence], agree to provide information to the government on other aspects of the case.”