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Financial Times: BP chief faces court appearance

By Sheila McNulty in Houston

A Texas judge is to decide on Monday whether to compel Lord Browne, BP’s chief executive, to be formally questioned before a court to decide claims against the UK oil giant arising from last year’s fatal refinery explosion.

BP has refused a request by the plaintiff’s attorney, Brent Coon, to question Lord Browne, forcing the decision into the court’s hands.

“We are opposing the request because Lord Browne has no unique knowledge of the incident that is not available from other people within BP,’’ a spokesman for BP said. “The head of BP’s worldwide refining operations has participated in the discovery process,” referring to the questioning of potential witnesses ahead of a US trial.

That “discovery process’’ led Michael Hoffman, BP’s group vice-president for global refining, to reveal the company is conducting an internal investigation, reaching up into its executive level, to determine whether to take further disciplinary action for the accident, which killed 15 and injured an estimated 500 at BP’s biggest refinery.

More than a year and a half after the blast, Mr Hoffman said in a videotaped deposition that he was also being scrutinised in the probe. A transcript of the deposition, taken this month by the plaintiff’s attorney in the civil case against BP that arose from the blast, was seen by the Financial Times.

The US Department of Labor found more than 300 health and safety violations at the refinery and fined BP a maximum allowable $21m before referring the explosion to the Justice Department for possible “criminal action”. A grand jury is debating whether to bring charges against BP and/or its executives.

In preparation, the plaintiffs pressed Mr Hoffman to reveal that John Manzoni, BP’s chief executive for refining and marketing, had chosen Wilhelm Bonse-Geuking, group vice-president of BP to investigate “whether or not there should be further disciplinary action . . . in the chain of command”.

He said Patrick Gower, refining vice-president for BP’s US region, and he believed Kathleen Lucas, Texas City operations manager, had also been interviewed.

The transcript of a videotaped deposition by Mr Gower, a copy of which also was obtained by the FT, reveals him saying he had learned in the month or two before his May deposition that he was being investigated.

Mr Gower said Don Parus, the refinery manager who has been on leave since the explosion, Ms Lucas and Willie Willis, an employee at the Texas City plant, were also being probed.

A BP spokesman, declined to confirm the probe. “As a matter of policy, we don’t comment on personnel matters,’’ he said. While BP has settled most of the claims arising from the blast, Mr Coon has more than 100 cases he is to take to trial on September 16.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006

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