(Recasts with jury verdict)
By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS, June 5 (Reuters) - A U.S. federal jury acquitted a former BP Plc executive on Friday of lying about how much oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig in April 2010, according to lawyers on both sides of the case.
David Rainey, BP’s former vice president of exploration in the Gulf, faced a maximum sentence of five years in prison had he been found guilty of willfully making a fraudulent statement to federal law enforcement agents.
The case was brought by the government over statements Rainey made to agents from the FBI and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nearly a year after the spill.
The April 20, 2010, explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig led to 11 deaths and the largest U.S. offshore oil spill.
Justice Department lawyer Robert Zink said witness testimony and text messages proved that Rainey deliberately understated the flow rate.
On May 24, 2010, Rainey sent a 5,000-barrel-a-day estimate to Congress, terming it BP’s “best scientific guess” at the flow rate, Zink said.
A group of government and independent scientists later concluded that more than 60,000 barrels per day were leaking into the Gulf during the relevant time, the Department of Justice said.
Rainey’s lawyer, Reid Weingarten, said prosecutors offered no convincing reason why Rainey would lie to investigators.
“This charge never should have been brought,” he said during closing arguments.
In rebutting the defense argument, Justice Department lawyer Leo Tsao told the jury that Rainey knew during his interviews with the FBI and EPA agents that he had sent unrealistic numbers to Congress and the Coast Guard, “and he knew he had to defend them,” Tsao said. “That’s criminal intent.”
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt dismissed a separate charge that Rainey obstructed a congressional inquiry.
Days after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded 50 miles (80 km) off Louisiana’s coast, BP said about 1,000 barrels of oil per day were flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. A week later, a government scientist estimated the flow at nearly 5,000 barrels, but said he could not vouch for the accuracy of that figure.
BP agreed to pay $4.5 billion in fines and other penalties and pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to the spill. It is also facing up to $13.7 billion in penalties under the Clean Water Act.
The case is U.S. v. Rainey, 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 14-374. (Editing by David Adams and Sandra Maler; and Peter Galloway)