Exxon Corp. and its shipping subsidiary pleaded guilty to criminal misdemeanors stemming from the nation's largest oil spill Friday at a proceeding in which a federal judge reserved his strongest rebuke for Alaska legislators.
U.S. District Judge Russel Holland accepted the changes of pleas to four charges from Exxon Chairman Lawrence Rawl and Exxon Shipping Co. President Augustus Elmer Friday morning before a courtroom packed mostly with lawyers and reporters.
The judge deferred a decision on whether to accept the agreement that led to the new pleas, saying he wants to hear from the oil spill's victims first. If he rejects the deal, the companies can withdraw their guilty pleas and proceed to trial.
Holland set up a public comment period that extends until April 11. He set April 24 as the date for imposing sentence on the oil companies.
Under the plea agreement, Exxon agrees to pay fines and restitution totaling $100 million and federal prosecutors agree to drop felony charges that accuse Exxon and Exxon Shipping of placing incompetent seamen in charge of the tanker at the time it ran aground on Bligh Reef, spilling nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil.
Holland's criticism of the legislature was prompted by a resolution passed by the state House of Representatives Thursday night asking him to delay resolution of the criminal case until after May 3. Holland said lawmakers warned that closing the criminal case would remove a valuable "lever" in the state's civil suit against Exxon.
Holland said threats like that are unethical.
"I am concerned and frankly put off a bit . . . by this type of conduct by the state of Alaska," Holland said, adding that the state court system's ethics code "makes it absolutely impermissible for a lawyer to threaten criminal charges solely to obtain an advantage in a civil matter."
A few hours after Rawl and Elmer quietly intoned, "guilty, your honor" in federal court, attorneys who represent hundreds of oil spill victims filed a new civil suit against the state in state court.
In that suit, Alaska Natives, fishermen, businesses, property owners and cannery workers allege that state officials failed to make sure that Alyeska Pipeline's oil-spill contingency plans were adequate. They also claim damages because the state failed to make public the results of its studies of the spill's effects.
Lloyd Miller, liaison counsel for the spill plaintiffs, said Exxon and Alyeska early on filed counterclaims asserting that the state shares responsibility for the spill.
Miller said the suit was filed to beat a deadline that requires damage suits to be filed within two years. The tanker spill occurred on March 24, 1989.
Miller said he and his clients have tried to negotiate a settlement with the state with no success.
"All of us feel we have been pushed into filing suit against the state," he said.
In federal court Friday morning, Rawl and Elmer presented Holland with resolutions approved by the boards of directors of their companies, authorizing them to change Exxon's not guilty pleas.
Under the 10-page plea agreement, Exxon pleads guilty to a single count of violating the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Exxon Shipping pleads guilty to that charge and also to violations of the Clean Water Act and the Refuse Act.
Charles DeMonaco, assistant chief of the Justice Department's environmental crimes section, said prosecutors were prepared to show that oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez killed 36,429 birds found in Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska by Sept. 20, 1989. Pathologists dissected 22 of them and concluded they died from exposure to oil from the tanker, he said.
If Holland accepts the agreement, Exxon and Exxon Shipping would be fined a combined $100 million. One half of the fine would be remitted, but the court would also impose a $50 million restitution payment to the state to restore Prince William Sound.
The plea agreement is part of a $1 billion settlement of all government claims against the oil companies worked out by Gov. Wally Hickel. However, the criminal agreement is wholly separate from the civil settlement, according to Holland, company lawyers and federal prosecutors.
"The criminal agreement goes forward without regard for what happens to the civil agreement," Exxon Shipping attorney James Neal said.
Both DeMonaco and Neal praised the plea agreement.
"This is a very, very major penalty," DeMonaco said, and it sends a clear signal that the government will hold major polluters accountable. Neal said the deal recognizes that the felonies originally leveled against the companies were excessive charges.
"We never thought that they should have brought the felony charge in the first place," he said.