NEW ORLEANS - A federal judge has dismissed a charge that is the backbone of the case against a former BP executive accused of concealing information from Congress about the amount of oil spewing in 2010 from the company's blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico.
Defence attorney Reid Weingarten called it a huge victory for David Rainey, who was BP's vice-president of exploration for the Gulf.
The charge of obstructing Congress thrown out Monday by U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt "was perhaps as much as 90 per cent of the government's evidence," Weingarten said.
Rainey still faces one count of making false statements to law enforcement agents.
Engelhardt cited two reasons for dismissing the obstruction of Congress charge against Rainey. One is that the indictment failed to allege that Rainey knew of the pending congressional investigation he was charged with obstructing.
"Because it is an essential element of this crime that the defendant knew of this inquiry and investigation, the indictment must allege such knowledge. It does not," the judge wrote in his 44-page ruling. "Even construing the allegations strongly in the government's favour, it is simply impossible to ascertain from the indictment whether this essential element was presented to and found by the grand jury."
The judge also ruled that the obstruction count must be dismissed because it wasn't clear that it applied to subcommittee investigations like the one at the centre of the indictment.
"Although subcommittees exist in both Houses of Congress, the statute does not contain the word 'subcommittee.' Thus, the defendant argues that the Court should not enlarge the statute to include subcommittees,'" Engelhardt wrote.
U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass, who led a House subcommittee's investigation of the oil spill, urged the Justice Department to appeal the judge's ruling.
"This was a congressional investigation, plain and simple, and this kind of narrow and off-the wall interpretation of how Congress investigates wrongdoing is deeply troubling," Markey said in a statement.
A Justice Department spokesman said prosecutors were reviewing the decision but declined to comment on it.
The indictment claims Rainey failed to disclose information about the estimated rate that oil was spewing from BP's blown-out Macondo well during a May 4, 2010, congressional briefing. It also claims Rainey responded to a letter from a subcommittee chairman, U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass