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The Wall Street Journal: BP Hires Former Judge To Be U.S. Ombudsman

By JIM CARLTON
September 5, 2006; Page A2

BP PLC has retained former U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin as its ombudsman to hear worker complaints from Alaska and elsewhere in the U.S., in a move to stem the tide of criticism over the British oil titan’s operations.

BP officials and Mr. Sporkin said BP has given the former jurist free rein to report to the company whatever he hears from workers in the field. Although he will be a contractor paid by BP, “I’ll call them as I see them,” Mr. Sporkin, 74 years old, said in an interview.

Some BP workers in the past have taken their complaints about BP’s practices in Alaska to a former oil-tanker broker named Charles Hamel, a frequent oil-industry critic, because they say management hasn’t heeded their warnings about corrosion and other problems at Alaska’s giant Prudhoe Bay oil field.

BP partially shut down production at the field last month after discovering corrosion problems more severe than company officials said they had realized. The move led to a surge in global oil prices and came amid investigations by federal and Alaska officials over BP’s management of pipelines in the state. While the London oil company has acknowledged some responsibility for the corrosion problem, BP has defended its overall pipeline maintenance as robust and characterized the incidents as unforeseeable.

Mr. Sporkin has some firsthand knowledge of the Alaskan oil issues. He presided over a lawsuit in 1993 in which Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. was accused of spying on Mr. Hamel and his wife, Kathy. Before Alyeska agreed to settle the case with Mr. Hamel and his wife without admitting wrongdoing, Mr. Sporkin lambasted the company’s tactics as “reminiscent of Nazi Germany.” Alyeska operates the Trans-Alaska Pipeline on behalf of a consortium of oil companies that includes BP, Exxon Mobil Corp. and ConocoPhillips.

Mr. Hamel, who lives in Alexandria, Va., said it remains to be seen whether Mr. Sporkin would prove effective. But “no one has more respect for Judge Sporkin than Kathy and I do,” he said.

Mr. Sporkin was asked to take on the ombudsman’s role, a new position at BP’s U.S. division, by Bob Malone, the company’s U.S. president. Mr. Malone said he met Mr. Sporkin in 2001 in his former job as president of Alyeska and thought he could serve as an impartial sounding board for worker complaints. “Because employees have told me they want a third avenue to raise issues, that is what we are doing,” said Mr. Malone, who is expected to testify at U.S. congressional hearings set to begin Thursday into problems at Prudhoe Bay and other U.S. operations.

BP is giving Mr. Sporkin a staff of two who will operate a 24-hour call center for any BP worker in the U.S. to file complaints. In an Aug. 31 letter to BP workers, Mr. Sporkin said: “My mandate is to do whatever is necessary to ascertain the facts about and identify solutions for problems that exist today as well as those likely to become issues in the future.”

Mr. Sporkin was involved in a number of other high-profile cases during his 14-year career as a jurist on the District of Columbia court. In 1995, he rejected a 1994 antitrust settlement between Microsoft Corp. and the Justice Department over licensing the company’s desktop software, saying it was too lenient. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington later reinstated it and removed Mr. Sporkin from the case. After retiring from the bench in 2000, Mr. Sporkin became a partner in the Washington office of the law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP and has been a consultant.

Write to Jim Carlton at [email protected]

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