Spill Commission Defends Its Top Lawyer

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The panel named by President Obama to investigate the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout on Tuesday rejected a call by a consumer activist group for the resignation of its chief counsel, Fred H. Bartlit Jr. The group, Consumer Watchdog, said that the panel should dismiss Mr. Bartlit because his law firm, Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott, once represented Halliburton, one of the companies involved in drilling the BP well.

The presidential panel is charged with finding the cause of the well explosion in April, which killed 11 workers and unleashed nearly five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The group noted that Mr. Bartlit had himself represented oil companies and chemical manufacturers and thus has a “clear conflict of interest.”

The consumer group said that Mr. Bartlit’s sympathies were on display last week when he presented the initial findings of his investigation. Mr. Bartlit said he found no evidence that any of the rig workers had cut corners on safety to save money. He also said that it was not his job to assign blame or liability for the accident because those issues would be decided by others, including the Justice Department.

Judy Dugan and Jamie Court of Consumer Watchdog said that those conclusions and his background defending energy companies were clear evidence of a pro-industry bias and that he should be dismissed. They said that prior accidents had shown that BP and Halliburton had frequently taken risky moves to save costs.

“In light of the past ties of Mr. Bartlit’s firm to Halliburton, the nature of his and his firm’s corporate liability work and the fact that the conclusions he announced last week are simply not credible, we believe he is not the appropriate person to be general counsel for the presidential commission,” Ms. Dugan and Mr. Court wrote to the seven members of the commission. “We call on the commission to review Mr. Bartlit’s conflict of interest on this matter and make public its findings.”

The panel quickly rose to Mr. Bartlit’s defense, saying that his firm had not represented Halliburton or other drilling interests for several years. The commission’s spokesman, Dave Cohen, also noted that Mr. Bartlit was thoroughly vetted by government ethics officials before accepting the job.

“It was Fred Bartlit who succeeded in obtaining from Halliburton the details of failed cement tests which the commission made public some weeks ago,” Mr. Cohen said in a statement. “It is therefore inconsistent to say that Mr. Bartlit somehow has a relationship with Halliburton that would influence him to protect the company.”

Mr. Cohen also said that Mr. Bartlit had found “a host of instances” where BP, Halliburton or Transocean, the owner of the drilling rig, seemed to be prioritizing saving time and money when alternative steps were available.

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