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Washington, D.C. -- Consumer Watchdog today called on President Obama to remove the general counsel to the national Oil Spill Commission after the commission itself refused to either dismiss him or investigate his apparent conflicts of interest, including his firm’s ties to Halliburton.
 
In a letter to the seven commission members Tuesday, the group cited counsel Fred Bartlit’s own legal defense of oil companies, his firm’s representation of Halliburton, one of the chief actors in the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and Bartlit’s legalistic conclusion that corporate cost-cutting was not part of the decisions that led to the spill. (See the letter to the commission at: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/FBartlitConflictofInterestLtr11-16-10.pdf)

The commission responded through a spokesperson that Bartlit was “thoroughly vetted” before taking the job, and had found instances when BP, Halliburton and Transocean seemed to be prioritizing saving time and money when alternative steps were available. (See the commission’s response, given to the New York Times, at: http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/16/spill-commission-defends-its-top-lawyer/)

Consumer Watchdog noted that the response was off the point of the letter to the commission, which concerned Bartlit’s formal preliminary conclusions last week, His prepared statement seemed to absolve the companies involved of deliberate cost-cutting at the expense of safety.

“What matters is what Bartlit says when he is speaking for the commission, as he did last week,” said Judy Dugan, research director of Consumer Watchdog. “In his public statement, he narrowed the issue to the actions and thoughts of individual workers, ignoring the culture of cost-cutting in which they were steeped. It is up to President Obama to take an honest look at Bartlit’s actions.”

The letter to the commission said:

“Mr. Bartlit is a founding partner of a law firm (Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott) that has as recently as 2005 represented Halliburton. Mr. Bartlit has also personally represented chemical and oil interests, including Amoco (now absorbed by BP) and Valero. He is expert at defining trial issues in ways that reflect well on his corporate clients.

“This history raises a fundamental conflict of interest, especially given the preliminary findings Mr. Bartlit announced last this week in a formal presentation that was likened in news reports to a scripted courtroom appearance. He indicated that there was no evidence of employees controlling operations at the rig ‘giving up safety for cost.’ His narrow statement, relating to individual minute-by-minute decisions, simply masked the corporate cultures that force employees into decisions based on cost, whether conscious or not.”

The letter also called for an investigation of Bartlit’s apparent conflicts, including:

  • The nature of Mr. Bartlit’s relationship with Halliburton;
  • How much his firm was paid by Haliburton;
  • How long the firm represented Halliburton;
  • Whether the firm has or is currently representing other defendants or potential defendants in the BP spill;
  • Whether Mr. Bartlit and his firm have agreed not to represent Halliburton or other likely oil spill defendants, including BP, in the future.

The letter cited examples from a long history of cost-cutting by BP and Halliburton:

“Both BP and Halliburton have well-documented corporate cultures that put profits before safety. The Baker Panel, a commission led by former Secretary of State James Baker, investigated BP's Texas City refinery blast that killed 15 people and injured 170 others and determined that indeed BP put profits before safety, finding that BP failed to provide "effective" leadership to make the safety of its industrial equipment "a core value" at its five U.S. refineries. Halliburton’s then-subsidiary KBR is under Congressional investigation for shoddy wiring and maintenance following the electrocution deaths of a dozen U.S. military personnel in Iraq over five years. In one electrocution case, Army investigators found that KBR, which held a maintenance contract, knew of ungrounded wiring in a barracks but ‘the [KBR] contract did not cover fixing potential defects,’ according to a 2008 Houston Chronicle story. Halliburton’s own website boasts of the cost-cutting benefits of its well cement formula.”

While some commission members disavowed Bartlit’s conclusions and Bartlit himself tried to walk them back after an outcry from Gulf residents, the fact remains that he was speaking for the commission, said Consumer Watchdog.

“It bodes poorly for the commission to have a legal tactician framing the causes of this catastrophe in a way that explicitly reduces the moral and perhaps legal corporate liability of BP, Halliburton and Transocean,” said Dugan. “The commission has a responsibility to investigate the culture in which rig operators and managers worked as well as what was in their minds as they made disastrous decisions. Now it’s up to the president to make sure that’s what happens.”

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 Consumer Watchdog is a leading nonprofit, nonpartisan consumer advocacy organization. For more information, see: www.ConsumerWatchdog.org.