After months of deliberation, a federal grand jury has indicted Exxon Corp. and its shipping subsidiary on criminal charges stemming from the March 24 tanker accident that dumped nearly 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil into Prince William Sound.
The five count indictment was issued Tuesday by an Anchorage grand jury that has been meeting since spring and announced at a late afternoon press conference in Washington, D.C.
Attorneys for hundreds of fishermen and others who have filed lawsuits against Exxon applauded the indictments but warned that the Department of Justice may still agree to a controversial plea bargain that would favor Exxon.
U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh said Tuesday Exxon had rejected that deal so the Justice Department pursued an indictment.
Exxon and Exxon Shipping Co. now face two felony charges and three misdemeanor charges. Thornburgh said at the press conference that fines could reach more than $600 million under a federal law that allows the government to collect twice the amount of money it spent on costs associated with the cleanup and claims paid by the defendants.
Thornburgh characterized the indictment as the toughest charges his office felt it could prove, adding that the indictment "throws the environmental book at Exxon."
The indictment charges that Exxon violated the Dangerous Cargo Act by employing crew members who were "physically and mentally incapable of performing the duties assigned them."
A second felony count alleges that Exxon failed to make sure that the wheelhouse of the Exxon Valdez was "constantly manned" by competent crew members.
The indictment does not specifically name the officers and crewmen who were on duty when the accident occurred. "We can't go into the evidence at this point," Thornburgh said. "We'll present our evidence in court when the time arises."
The Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef shortly after its captain, veteran skipper Joseph Hazelwood, had left the bridge to do paperwork in his cabin. Hazelwood left Third Mate Gregory Cousins in charge and told him how to maneuver around ice in the shipping lanes, a course that took him within a mile of the reef. But Cousins, who was not licensed to pilot a ship through that area of the Sound, missed a critical turn.
The competency of helmsman Robert Kagan also has been questioned at federal transportation board hearings and in the current state criminal trial in which Hazelwood is charged with being drunk and reckless.
Exxon also has been charged with misdemeanor violations including discharging pollutants without a permit and killing migratory birds without a permit. The Justice Department alleges more than 36,000 migratory birds died in the spill.
Last week, the state and attorneys for fishermen and others who have civil lawsuits pending against Exxon complained that Justice and Exxon were rushing into a "sweetheart deal" that could affect the civil cases.
Alaska Attorney General Doug Baily, who had been briefed on the terms of the settlement by Justice, said the deal was beneficial only to Exxon. In letters to the Justice Department, he indicated the federal government no longer would help the state and civil plaintiffs in their cases against Exxon, including not sharing scientific information crucial to the lawsuits.
Thornburgh refused to talk about terms of the proposed plea bargain, but he said Exxon ultimately rejected the settlement. He said Exxon had approached Justice in hopes of working out a plea agreement.
At the press conference, Thornburgh sidestepped questions about whether a similar deal may still be in the works. "Oh, a plea can be entered by a criminal defendant to any indictment," he said.
Kenneth Adams, an attorney who has been designated spokesman for the committee representing the civil plaintiffs, said the indictment clearly doesn't affect the ability to proceed with civil claims. "But what happens to the indictment could very much affect our cases," he said.
Exxon may well ask for a postponement of civil cases so it can defend itself on the criminal charges, Adams said. "Will Justice prosecute or will we see a plea agreement" similar to the earlier deal?
Adams noted that the civil plaintiffs as well as the state also have cases against Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., operator of the Valdez shipping terminal that initially responded to the spill.
The indictment doesn't affect Alyeska or the cases against it, Adams said. But one scenario he is concerned about is how a court will view proceeding against Alyeska if Exxon is granted a postponement in the civil cases.
Baily and Gov. Steve Cowper met with Thornburgh about a halfhour before the indictments were announced. The two had set up the meeting hoping to talk Justice out of the unfavorable plea agreement.
Cowper said not much happened at the meeting. Thornburgh and another Justice Department lawyer wouldn't talk about the plea bargain and didn't mention the indictment, he said.
Cowper hadn't seen the indictment late Tuesday and had no comment.
"I think it would be a mistake to read anything into the Justice Department's action or Exxon's action," he said.
"I certainly hope that the public disagreement that we have had about this pleabargain proposal hasn't soured our relations with the federal government for the purpose of pushing the civil action," Cowper said. "That's important to both of us."
Thornburgh said that, with regard to civil matters, the Justice Department "can and (has) offered to work with them and will continue to do so, I suspect."
Daily News reporter David Postman contributed to this story.