NEWORLEANS- British oil giant BP pleaded not guilty to 14 criminal counts Tuesday in federal court in New Orleans, but the company's lawyers said that was only to conform with court procedure and signaled that they intend to plead guilty at a later date.
The company made its first appearance before U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle, who said he could only accept a not-guilty plea, even though BP and the U.S. Justice Department signed a plea agreement two weeks ago.
Under that agreement the company has agreed to pay $4.5 billion in fines and penalties.
BP is charged with 11 counts of seaman's manslaughter for the deaths of the 11 rig workers who died in the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon off the southeast Louisiana coast on April 20, 2010. The company is also charged with criminal violations of the Clean Water Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act and obstruction of Congress for covering up the amount of oil that spilled out of the well the Deepwater Horizon had drilled.
In pleading not guilty to comply with court procedure, BP lawyer Mark Filip said the company would seek approval from U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance for their plea agreement with the government. Lemelle is only serving as magistrate for the arraignment. Vance has scheduled a conference with the parties for Dec. 11 and prosecutor John Buretta said the government would ask her for a guilty plea hearing at that time.
Separately, prosecutors charged three BP employees with crimes: Two rig supervisors, Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, who were charged with manslaughter and violating the Clean Water Act, and an executive, David Rainey, who is charged with obstruction for allegedly doctoring measurements of the oil that spilled for 87 days in the summer of 2010 and causing the company to lie to Congress about it. Those three employees are scheduled to be arraigned before Lemelle tomorrow.
Lemelle has notified all of the parties that he previously recused himself from a civil case because his wife had a financial stake in Halliburton, the company whose cement was supposed to seal the well and keep gas from seeping in and causing the explosion. BP and government attorneys said they had no objection to Lemelle presiding over this preliminary part of their case.