BP Seeks to Block U.S. Access to Lawyer Spill-Rate Files

BP Plc, on trial in New Orleans federal court for the biggest U.S. offshore oil spill in history, asked a federal judge to block a government request to make public internal communications with the company’s lawyers.

The documents, which the company said are protected by attorney-client privilege, detail oil spill flow-rate calculations the government claims are related to BP’s guilty plea. BP admitted to 14 criminal counts, including one charge of lying to Congress about the size of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded. BP agreed last year to pay $4 billion in fines and penalties.

In a court filing yesterday, the U.K.-based energy company claimed the documents don’t relate to the specific criminal conduct admitted in its plea. The company said that turning the documents over would give the U.S. “unwarranted tactical advantages from BP’s acceptance of responsibility.’’ The trial began this week and is expected to last three months.

“Just because a lawyer is part of the process of preparing a report that includes false or fraudulent statements does not mean the attorney’s professional services were rendered in furtherance of fraudulent purposes,’’ BP’s lawyers said in the filing. The privilege can’t be automatically stripped “every time a lawyer is involved in a process of providing information to the government that might later turn out to be false.”

BP Trial

The government asked U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who is overseeing the trial, to use the so-called crime-fraud exception to force the company to hand over documents. They relate to three U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings BP made shortly after the April 2010 spill. The government also seeks internal papers concerning BP’s communications with Congressional investigators and U.S. Coast Guard officials overseeing BP’s attempts to stop, and cleanup, the spill.

“Because BP used its attorneys to aid in its wrongdoing, it can no longer claim privilege with respect to communications related to developing the flow-rate information and communications forming the basis of BP’s false and misleading statements,’’ the U.S. said in a Jan. 29 filing.

BP said the government may be entitled to company e-mails and reports that were sent with the active participation of former BP Exploration Vice President David Rainey, who has been charged with two counts of obstruction. Rainey has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

Sealed Copies

The company agreed to give the judge sealed copies of communications in which Rainey “is an active participant and that relate to the matters in BP’s guilty plea allocution.’’

BP also will provide Barbier with sealed copies of additional communications the government seeks which BP said aren’t directly linked to Rainey or to the conduct the company admitted in its plea.

The case is In Re: Oil Spill by the Oil Rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, MDL-2179, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).