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BP Under Investigation

Justice Department launches a criminal investigation into the gulf oil disaster
By Steven Andersen
Inside Counsel
August 1, 2010

Given the unfathomable magnitude of the ongoing BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the announcement of a federal criminal investigation didn’t come as a particular surprise. As one solution after another failed and the intensity of the catastrophe mounted, the crisis became political as well as environmental—with action from the Justice Department all but inevitable.

"We must … ensure that anyone found responsible for this spill is held accountable," announced Attorney General Eric Holder in June. "That means enforcing the appropriate civil—and if warranted, criminal—authorities to the full extent of the law."

What form that investigation takes and just how long it lasts are matters of some debate. But like the spill itself, the inquest has the dubious distinction of displacing the financial crisis from the top headlines. The oil spill investigation will face unusual public scrutiny, with proportionate pressure on the DOJ to yield results.

While few companies will ever face a debacle of this magnitude, the case provides in-house counsel with object lessons on criminal environmental liability, crisis management and the growing need to play a greater role on the operations side of corporations.

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