NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Nearly a year after energy giant BP cut a deal to a resolve a criminal investigation of its role in the nation's worst offshore oil spill, a jury is set to hear the Justice Department's case against a former company employee accused of trying to stymie the federal investigation.
Kurt Mix, who was a drilling engineer for BP, possibly faces a prison sentence if convicted of charges he deliberately deleted text messages and voicemails about the company's response to its massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Jury selection for his trial on two counts of obstruction of justice is scheduled to begin Monday in New Orleans.
His former employer pleaded guilty in January to manslaughter charges for the deaths of 11 rig workers and to lying to Congress about the size of the spill. The company agreed to pay $4 billion in penalties, including nearly $1.3 billion in fines.
Mix, 52, of Katy, Texas, is one of four current or former BP employees charged with crimes related to the deadly disaster or its aftermath. His case is the first to be tried.
Mix worked on a team of experts trying to stop the flow of oil from BP's Macondo well after a blowout triggered an explosion that killed the workers on the Deepwater Horizon rig. Between April 2010 and July 2010, BP sent him 10 separate notices that he was obligated to preserve all records related to the catastrophe, which led to millions of gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf.
The indictment says Mix deleted a string of text messages to and from a supervisor from his iPhone on Oct. 4, 2010, a day before a company vendor tried to collect documents from his laptop.
In June 2011, federal authorities issued a subpoena to BP for copies of messages that Mix sent and received around the time he was working on trying to cap the blown-out well.
On Aug. 20, 2011, Mix is said to have deleted dozens of text messages that he had exchanged with a BP contractor named Wilson Arabie. The indictment says Mix also deleted one voicemail from Arabie, one voicemail from the supervisor and one voicemail from an unidentified caller that went through BP's general switchboard.
Two days later, Mix met with the vendor and turned over his iPhone to be imaged. That same day, he also is said to have told BP attorneys that he had deleted some text messages and voicemails from the phone, including texts related to the Macondo well, according to the indictment.
The supervisor, Jonathan Sprague, and Arabie worked with Mix on spill response efforts, prosecutors noted.
"The timing of these deletions provides compelling evidence of (Mix's) corrupt intent to prevent the discovery of his text messages with the Supervisor and Contractor," they wrote in a court filing.
Mix's attorneys, however, said prosecutors never presented the grand jury with evidence about the content of the deleted texts messages.
"And had the grand jurors been given copies of the deleted text messages, they would have seen that they were not only not incriminatory in any way, but predominantly — and arguably entirely — innocuous and insignificant in substance," they wrote.
The content of Mix's messages with Arabie was "patently innocuous," Mix's lawyers argued.
"The vast majority of the text messages involve the type of mundane exchanges one would expect to find between co-workers (e.g., 'Call you after I eat'; 'have u set the time for meeting tmrw?'; where are u sitting?')," they wrote.