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U.S. charges ex-BP engineer with obstruction of justice

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Kai Ryssdal: Two years and four days after the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, the Justice Department filed the first criminal charges in the case today. A former BP engineer has been arrested and charged with obstruction of justice. Prosecutors say Kurt Mix intentionally deleted more than 300 text messages that said BP’s attempt to control the oil spill were failing, and that more oil was leaking than what the company was telling anybody.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Scott Tong reports.

Scott Tong: Kurt Mix is accused of sending a text message that 15,000 barrels of oil were leaking daily from the BP well — triple what the company said publicly.

Serious charge, but BP stock didn’t do much on the news. Relatively small news for company liability, says Pavel Molchanov at Raymond James.

Pavel Molchanov: He is accused in his own personal capacity of allegedly deleting emails he was instructed by the Justice Department to retain. There is no suggestion that he was told by his supervisor or senior management to do that.

But criminal charges may go up the ladder. Law professor David Uhlmann at the University of Michigan notes the Justice Department suggested more may come. In its complaint, Justice referred to other unnamed BP employees. But he’s puzzled why the government is not yet going after BP itself, and its partners.

David Uhlmann: The government has a slam dunk criminal case against BP, TransOcean and Halliburton for the negligence that caused the Gulf oil spill. They should bring those criminal charges.

That, he says, is where the real money is — the actual explosion and spill, not the cover up.

Uhlmann: Each of the companies involved faces billions of dollars in potential criminal penalties. In contrast, the penalties for obstruction of justice are much smaller.

By one estimate, BP’s paid out some $20 billion in compensation, settlement and cleanup. If the company –- not just Kurt Mix — is found liable for criminal gross negligence, that could double the tab.

I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: BP shares barely budged in New York trading today. One supposes people have already priced in whatever legal action is yet to come as a result of the spill.

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