It's another bad day for the Justice Department.
A federal judge in Louisiana has thrown out the central criminal charge against a former BP executive because prosecutors failed to prove he knew about a pending congressional investigation into oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico three years ago. U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt also ruled that a Democratic House member who inquired about the oil flow rate was acting as head of a subcommittee, not a full congressional committee, as required under the federal Obstruction of Justice statute.
The judge's ruling dismisses half of the BP Task Force prosecution against David Rainey, the highest ranking official at the British oil giant to be charged with a crime in connection with the spill and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig. Eleven men died there in April 2010.
Brian Heberlig, a lawyer for Rainey, told NPR in an email statement that "we are very pleased with the Court's thoughtful and well-reasoned opinion dismissing the main charge in the indictment."
The original grand jury indictment said Rainey failed to share accurate information about the oil flow rate during a briefing with members of Congress and their staff only weeks after the spill, and that he helped prepare a misleading response to Massachusetts Democrat Rep. Ed Markey about flow rate estimates.
But the judge ruled that "it is not enough that the indictment obliquely suggest that the defendant was aware of a request emanating from some person or group associated with Congress."
He added: "Because it is an essential element of this crime that the defendant knew of this inquiry and investigation, the indictment must allege such knowledge. It does not."
A Justice Department spokesman said prosecutors are reviewing the ruling and declined to comment further "at this time." Authorities have the option of appealing the ruling or refashioning their indictment. The judge's decision left in place a second charge against Rainey, for allegedly making false statements about the oil flow rate in an April 2011 interview with law enforcement agents.
Lawyers who represent people in front of Congress are already taking note of the decision.
Washington lawyer Stanley Brand says "it's certainly significant from a congressional standpoint for future cases."
"For obstruction purposes," Brand says, "it has to be an officially authorized investigation and what that means is, you've got to have the chair and you've got to have the majority otherwise it's just a rump exercise for the purposes of the law."