In his most wide-ranging remarks on the Gulf Coast oil spill, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. said Tuesday that the Justice Department is considering both criminal and civil penalties against those responsible for the disaster.
Holder spoke in New Orleans after spending the day meeting with state attorneys general and U.S. attorneys from the affected states. He said that federal prosecutors are reviewing an array of laws that might apply, including “traditional criminal statutes” and such environmental statutes as the Clean Water Act.
“There are a wide range of possible violations under these statutes, and we will closely examine the actions of those involved in this spill,” Holder said, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. “If we find evidence of illegal behavior, we will be forceful in our response.”
A DOJ spokesman said the Environmental Crimes Section, and its chief Stacey Mitchell, is working with U.S. Attorneys along the Gulf Coast. On the civil side, the Environmental Enforcement Section, led by chief Bruce Gelber, is involved. Gelber and Mitchell are career department lawyers.
While some lawmakers and legal commentators have stressed the need for a criminal investigation, Holder’s remarks are the clearest statement yet on the government’s intentions. The Justice Department’s No. 3 official, Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, repeatedly declined to discuss potential charges when he testified May 25 before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
Holder said that prosecutors “have already instructed all relevant parties to preserve any documents that may shed light on the facts surrounding this disaster.” He said prosecutors would be “meticulous,” “comprehensive” and “aggressive.”
Environmental laws give federal prosecutors wide latitude to pursue criminal cases, said Ronald Sarachan, who was chief of DOJ’s Environmental Crimes Section from 1994 to 1997. Under the Clean Water Act, for example, the government can bring criminal negligence charges even if the defendant did not act knowingly.
“The department has powerful tools to respond to an incident like this, where there is a widespread environmental impact,” said Sarachan, who is chair of the white collar and investigations practice at Ballard Spahr in Philadelphia.
For more coverage, see The National Law Journal‘s Gulf Spill Scorecard.