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Appeals court: Ex-BP executive can be tried on charge of obstructing Congress in spill probe

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NEW ORLEANS - A former BP executive can be tried on a charge that he obstructed a Congressional investigation into the 2010 Gulf oil spill, a federal appeals court in New Orleans said in a ruling posted Monday.

The case involves allegations that David Rainey failed to disclose information from BP PLC indicating that the amount of oil gushing into the Gulf after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion could have been far higher than estimates that were being made publicly.

U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt had ruled in favour of defence lawyers, who said the law that Rainey was charged with breaking refers specifically to congressional committees, but not subcommittees.

But three-judge 5th Circuit panel disagreed, saying the law includes congressional subcommittees, and reversed Engelhardt's ruling.

Prosecutors allege that Rainey during a May 4, 2010, congressional briefing failed to disclose information about the estimated rate that oil was spewing from BP's blown-out Macondo well after the April rig explosion. They also claim Rainey responded to a letter from a subcommittee chairman, then-Rep. Edward Markey, with false and misleading information about flow-rate estimates. Markey is now a Democratic senator from Massachusetts.

Rainey also faces a charge of making false statements. Also, after Engelhardt threw out the original obstruction charge, prosecutors obtained a new indictment on that charge. Rainey has pleaded not guilty. His defence lawyers in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday morning.

The 5th Circuit decision, dated Friday, clears the way a district court trial. A trial had been set for this past March but Engelhardt postponed it, pending the outcome of the appeal.

The opinion by Judge Stephen Higginson for a panel that also included Emilio Garza and E. Grady Jolly said the text of the law in question is "plain and determinative" and that "all tools of statutory construction favour reading" the law to include subcommittees.

The explosion on the BP-operated drilling rig Deepwater Horizon killed 11 workers about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast and set off the nation's worst offshore oil disaster.

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