FBI agent testifies at trial of ex-BP engineer charged with deleting messages
Kurt Mix, center, arrives at the Hale Boggs Federal Building in New Orleans, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013. (AP / Jonathan Bachman)
Published Wednesday, December 4, 2013 9:25AM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, December 4, 2013 6:25PM EST
NEW ORLEANS -- Some of the text messages that a former BP drilling engineer deleted from his cellphone contained information that could have been evidence in the Justice Department's investigation of the company's 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an FBI agent testified Wednesday at the engineer's trial on obstruction of justice charges.
Investigators recovered a string of deleted text messages that Kurt Mix had sent to a supervisor while he worked on a team of experts who were trying to seal BP's blown-out Macondo well. Special Agent Kelly Bryson, the first witness at Mix's trial, said some of those messages helped show what BP engineers knew at the time about the amount of oil gushing out of the well.
Mix deleted from his iPhone a string of 331 text messages to the supervisor, Jonathan Sprague, in October 2010 and another string of 182 messages to BP contractor Wilson Arabie in August 2011.
"I would have presented those to the grand jury," said Bryson, who served on a task force that the Justice Department formed after the blowout triggered an explosion that killed 11 workers and spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf.
During cross-examination by one of Mix's attorneys, Bryson acknowledged that investigators received many emails and other documents that Mix had saved on his laptop. Mix's lawyers say their client preserved and turned over records containing the same information that he is accused of trying to conceal from the grand jury.
Bryson said the FBI's probe focused on "what was known publicly and what was known privately" inside BP in the weeks after the blowout. Information about oil flow rates was "absolutely crucial" to the investigation, she added.
Mix worked on BP's unsuccessful effort to halt the spill using a technique called "top kill" and had access to internal data about the rate that oil was flowing from the well. On May 26, 2010, the day the top kill attempt began, Mix estimated in a text to a supervisor that more than 630,000 gallons of oil per day were spilling -- three times BP's public estimate of 210,000 gallons daily and a rate far greater than what the company said a top kill could handle.
Two days later, after it became clear that the top kill was failing, Sprague texted Mix to ask what "plan b" would be.
"Not sure -- big powwow," Mix replied.
Arabie texted Mix on the same day to ask, "u still at it?"
"Yep, but taking another spanking," Mix responded.
Walter Becker, one of Mix's lawyers, said his client saved thousands of Macondo-related records on his laptop, including an email attachment containing flow-rate estimates on April 22, 2010, that were higher than what BP was publicly releasing at the time.
Bryson said the text message exchanges can be valuable to investigators because they are essentially records of private conversations that tend to be more candid.
During the trial's opening statements, Justice Department prosecutor Jennifer Saulino said Mix didn't share his higher flow-rate estimates with a team of outside scientists during a May 2010 meeting. She suggested his silence could have been his motive for later deleting his May 26 text message to Sprague.
Mix's lawyers, however, said he deleted the text messages for innocent reasons. Defence lawyer Joan McPhee said Mix deleted the string of messages with Sprague seconds after Sprague jokingly took his photo during a meeting and texted it to his phone.
Seventeen of the text messages that Mix exchanged with Sprague between April 26, 2010, and April 30, 2010, couldn't be recovered by a government expert. U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. instructed jurors that they can't give "undue importance" to those messages simply because the contents aren't known.
Mix, 52, of Katy, Texas, pleaded not guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice. Each count carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
His trial is expected to last up to three weeks.