Federal judge rejects conflict accusation in BP engineer case

The federal judge who presided over the trial of a former BP engineer found guilty last year of obstructing justice in the government’s investigation of the Deepwater Horizon disaster has denied a defense motion to disqualify him from the case, calling the effort “completely devoid of merit.”

In a strongly worded order Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. blasted a potential conflict-of-interest claim raised last month by attorneys for Kurt Mix, who said the judge was tainted by the fact that he filed a claim against BP seeking payment, including punitive damages, for oil damage to his Grand Isle fishing camp after the 2010 oil spill.

Duval called the argument “naive at best and disingenuous at its worst.”

Mix, a former BP engineer who calculated how much oil was gushing into the Gulf of Mexico after the ill-fated Macondo well blew out, was found guilty in December of one count of obstructing justice for deleting a string of text messages in an alleged effort to hamper the government’s criminal investigation of the deadly disaster.

In his order, Duval said his claim in BP’s civil litigation had nothing to do with Mix’s case. “Simply because some of the same facts are adduced at two trials does not make the outcome in one trial affect the other,” he wrote.

“A guilty verdict in the Mix trial means nothing in the Deepwater Horizon matter. His actions are removed in time from the issues in the civil trial,” Duval continued. “The actions concerning fraudulent flow rate occurred from April through August of 2010. Mr. Mix’s deletions occurred in October of 2010, after the flow had ended.”

Duval is slated to hear defense motions on March 13 to acquit Mix or hold a new trial.

Mix’s attorneys have asked the judge to vacate the jury’s Dec. 18 decision, alleging misconduct because one juror said in an interview after the trial that another juror acknowledged overhearing a conversation in the courthouse elevator that made it easier to render a guilty verdict.

Mix’s sentencing is scheduled for March 26.

During a status conference in May 2012 — the same month Mix was indicted — Duval told defense lawyers and prosecutors about his sullied beachfront property and stated that he was entitled to seek compensation from BP. “However, such compensation cannot be sought through the Deepwater Horizon Court Supervised Settlement Program,” the judge noted in the minutes of the phone call.

At the time, attorneys for Mix and BP, as well as prosecutors for the U.S. Department of Justice, said in court filings that they did not object to Duval presiding over the case.

Because the settlement’s terms barred sitting judges on the New Orleans federal bench from recovering economic losses from the multibillion-dollar court-supervised settlement, Duval joined the litigation in 2013 by filing a separate three-page form allowing him to bring a civil claim against BP on his own.

In their motion supporting the judge’s recusal, Mix’s attorneys said they inferred from his initial disclosure that Duval “had no plans to file any sort of lawsuit against BP, let alone file a lawsuit seeking punitive damages and adopting allegations that BP and its employees (including Kurt Mix) willfully and wantonly misled the public” about efforts to try to kill the flow of oil from the BP well.

Duval said in his 34-page order Thursday that his disclosure didn’t mean he was relinquishing his ability to file a claim but that he “simply had not made a final decision.”

Mix’s attorneys should not have assumed that Duval wouldn’t later file a claim, the judge wrote, considering the amount of public attention that Grand Isle received in the wake of the disaster, which killed 11 men and is widely considered the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

“The court clearly informed them that it had beachfront property on Grand Isle, which was widely seen during the crisis as the epicenter of the damage of the oil spill. Indeed, the first place the president of the United States visited to survey the damage caused to the beaches, waterfowl and fish of the Gulf of Mexico was Port Fourchon, Louisiana and then this small barrier island,” the order states.

Duval added that it was “public knowledge that the use of the beach was prohibited for a number of months,” and reminded the attorneys that he gave them a week to consider whether he should have been disqualified from the case after his 2012 disclosure.

Mix’s trial was largely based on his “state of mind, nothing more, nothing less,” when he deleted the messages, Duval said.

Attorneys for Mix summed up their concerns against Duval in a Jan. 22 motion, raising issues beyond the Grand Isle property. They also contended that his ties to other parties in the BP litigation were uncomfortably tight: His claim was represented by his nephew, Stan Duval, a partner at Duval Funderburk, a Houma law firm representing many claimants, and he was a close friend of a member of the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee that brokered the settlement.

“The defense has been unable to identify any case that looks remotely like this: namely, one where the district judge and his lead law clerk are active litigants in a highly publicized civil case worth billions of dollars that is unfolding in the courtroom literally next door and, through their legal representatives in that civil case, are actually advocating in favor of the very same arguments that the prosecutors have been making for over a year against the criminal defendant over whose case the district judge is presiding and on whose case the law clerk is working,” Mix’s motion stated.

Duval’s law clerk is his wife, Janet Daley.

By virtue of a long legal career, Duval said, knowing others involved in the litigation is inevitable. “As a 72-year-old individual who practiced law in Houma, La., for 28 years, has sat as a judge for nearly another 20, and has interacted with the Louisiana Bar throughout that time, serving on various committees and other civic endeavors, the number of ‘friends’ that could ‘profit’ from the proceedings are innumerable,” the judge wrote.

“It is utterly ludicrous to contend that the undersigned was under any duty to determine which friends, acquaintances and former clients had a potential claim in the civil litigation and disclose same at any time during these proceedings,” he wrote.

Leading up to his trial, some observers — and his own defense at times — contended that Mix was simply a low-level engineer who had become an easy target to appease a public cry for accountability in the wake of the accident.

Duval seemed to acknowledge he believes others should also be tried for their actions, saying he has “noted on the record many times (his) concern that perhaps individuals far more culpable in the ‘fraudulent flow rate’ scheme have not been brought to justice,” though he said it was not his role to drive such decisions.

Duval is also presiding over the trial of Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, BP’s top two supervisors on board the Deepwater Horizon rig at the time of the blowout. Each faces 11 counts of involuntary manslaughter, along with violating the federal Clean Water Act. Their attorneys have said in court filings they do not object to Duval presiding over the case.

The judge’s son, David Duval, a former claim appeals coordinator for the settlement program, has come under scrutiny in recent months after an independent investigation of the claims center found that in October, he forwarded a confidential work email to his cousin, a partner at a Houma law firm that represented businesses and individuals affected by the spill.

David Duval quit when confronted with his actions, federal court records show.