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Harry R. Weber and Curt Anderson / AP Writers

Months of investigation by a presidentialcommission and other panels reinforce the likelihood that companiesinvolved in the Gulf oil spill will be slapped with criminalcharges that could add to the huge fines they already face, legalexperts said Thursday.

The reports don't blame a single person or group responsible forthe series of mistakes. That means in the end no one may go toprison for the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

BP, Transocean and Halliburton should survive thanks to theirfinancial arsenal, though charges would take another chink out oftheir armor.

'The evidence of negligence is too compelling and the harm istoo great,' said David Uhlmann, former chief of environmentalcrimes at the Justice Department. 'The Justice Department islikely to believe that BP, Transocean and Halliburton werenegligent and should be criminally charged. There's no questionabout that.'

Uhlmann, now a law professor at the University of Michigan,cited excerpts released Wednesday from the presidential oil spillcommission's report, saying it alone shows the standard forcriminal charges has been met.

Among the panel's conclusions: decisions intended to save timeand money created an unreasonable amount of risk that triggered theApril 20 explosion in the Gulf of Mexico and led to the oil spill.

The panel said another similar disaster could happen again withoutsignificant reforms by industry and government.

But the panel also concluded that the mistakes were the resultof systemic problems, not necessarily the fault of any oneindividual.

The blast killed 11 workers on the rig Deepwater Horizon and ledto more than 200 million gallons of oil spewing from BP's well amile beneath the Gulf of Mexico, according to government estimates.

BP disputes the figure, but has yet to provide its own.Gregory Evans, a Los Angeles attorney who is an expert inenvironmental law, said prosecutors have wide discretion aboutwhether to bring criminal charges.

'It appears that the panel has concluded that BP, Transoceanand Halliburton and several subcontractors working for them took aseries of very hazardous steps which appeared to be motivated byeconomic concerns or at least efficiency,' Evans said. 'Thisagain can be seen by a prosecutor as evidence of an environmentalcrime.'

Evans also noted, however, that the commission blamed governmentregulators in its report, which could mitigate culpability of thecompanies.

'Given the wide latitude they have, I think they could goeither way on it,' he said.

The Justice Department has an ongoing criminal investigation andhas already sued some of the companies involved, seekingunspecified damages. Halliburton, the cement contractor for thewell that blew out, was not named in the Justice Departmentlawsuit.

'We continue to aggressively investigate the causes of thespill, and will examine all evidence and facts that may be relevantto that investigation and all parties potentially responsible forthe spill,' Justice spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said.

The companies pointed fingers at each other -- again -- instatements after the presidential panel's conclusions.

BP PLC said the accident was the result of many causes,involving multiple companies. Transocean Ltd., which owned the rigbeing leased by BP to perform the drilling, said 'the proceduresbeing conducted in the final hours were crafted and directed by BPengineers and approved in advance by federal regulators.'

Halliburton Co. also said it acted at the direction of BP and was'fully indemnified by BP.'Robert Force, a Tulane University professor who is an expert inmaritime law, said it is increasingly possible some of thecompanies will face charges. He did caution that the question ofnegligence is a tricky one.

And individuals involved with the rig and well may be able torest easier.

'I haven't seen a revelation that said, 'we have foundsomething really bad,' where there was an intentional violation ofa regulation or improper conduct. Usually something like that wouldhave been revealed by now,' said Steve Yerrid, a Tampa, Fla.attorney who until Dec. 31 was oil spill counsel to former FloridaGov. Charlie Crist. 'The likelihood of an individual or a groupbeing indicted for a criminal offense has waned with time.'

Big companies can usually survive criminal convictions, but notalways.

Arthur Andersen, once one of the so-called 'Big Five'accounting firms, was found guilty of obstructing justice in 2002for the shredding of documents related to the Enron scandal.

Although the conviction was later reversed by the U.S. SupremeCourt, the Chicago-based firm's reputation was damaged enough toput it out of business.

On the other hand, Hospital Corp. of America -- the nation'slargest private hospital chain -- is thriving despite paying arecord $1.7 billion fine for massive Medicare fraud involvingguilty pleas to 14 felonies that occurred when the company wasknown as Columbia/HCA.

Besides possible criminal charges, the investigations also couldplay a key role in the outcome of the hundreds of civil lawsuits.

In those cases, attorneys for the fishermen, businesses, propertyowners and others want to prove gross negligence by BP and itspartners, which could lead to bigger payouts.

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