NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Jury selection began Monday for the Justice Department's case against a former BP drilling engineer charged with deleting text messages and voicemails about the company's response to its massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Dozens of potential jurors filled a New Orleans courtroom for the start of Kurt Mix's federal trial, which is expected to last up to three weeks.
Mix, 52, of Katy, Texas, was indicted last year on two counts of obstruction of justice. Prosecutors claim he deliberately deleted strings of text messages to and from a supervisor and a BP PLC contractor to hamper a grand jury's investigation of the spill.
Mix is one of four current or former BP employees charged with crimes related to the nation's worst offshore oil spill. His case is the first to be tried.
The charges against Mix aren't related to any of the events leading up the April 2010 blowout of BP's Macondo well, which triggered an explosion that killed 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon rig.
Mix was part of a team of experts who scrambled to seal the well, which spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf. Mix, who worked on BP's unsuccessful attempt to stop the gusher using a technique called "top kill," had access to internal data about the amount of oil flowing from the well.
On May 26, 2010, the day the top kill 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 and a rate far greater than what the company said top kill could handle.
BP repeatedly notified Mix that he was obligated to preserve all of his spill-related records. But the indictment says he deleted a string of text messages to and from the supervisor, Jonathan Sprague, from his iPhone on Oct. 4, 2010.
Mix also allegedly deleted a string of text messages he exchanged with a BP contractor named Wilson Arabie in August 2011, several weeks after federal authorities issued a subpoena to BP for copies of some of Mix's correspondence.
In a court filing, Mix's lawyers said the deleted messages were "predominantly — and arguably entirely — innocuous and insignificant in substance."
"And in the lone text message directly referencing the Macondo Incident ('Yup, but taking another spanking'), Mix merely acknowledged what was already well known to government officials, the press corps, and millions of Americans watching CNN at the time: namely, that the ongoing top kill effort did not appear to be staunching the flow of oil from the Macondo Well," the defense attorneys wrote.
The indictment also accuses Mix of deleting one voicemail from Arabie, one voicemail from the supervisor and one voicemail from an unidentified caller that went through BP's general switchboard.
Each count of obstruction of justice carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
Three other current or former BP employees await trials on spill-related criminal charges.
BP well site leaders Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine have pleaded not guilty to manslaughter charges stemming from the rig workers' deaths. Prosecutors say they botched a key safety test and disregarded high pressure readings that were signs of trouble before the blowout.
Former BP executive David Rainey is charged with concealing information from Congress about the amount of oil spewing from the well.