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On Avoiding Blame, Part One, Or, Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Drill No Evil. September 2, 2010

I am one of those people who will actually watch those boring, boring, hearings on C-SPAN that most of us flip right on past while watching TV, and this past week I’ve been watching one of the longer events the channel broadcasts…but it’s been far from boring.

The Coast Guard and what used to be the MMS were in Houston looking into what caused the Gulf oil spill and they’re taking testimony from representatives of the involved parties…and let me tell you, this is more than just an accident inquiry—it’s also a warm-up for the lawsuits that are surely going to follow.

We’ve had dozens of trial attorneys basically conducting a deposition process, witnesses who can teach a master course in “plausible unawareability”©, BP employees who have taken the Fifth and refused to testify at all, and, overseeing the entire process, a retired Federal District Court Judge and a Coast Guard Captain who might very well be on the way to trading his eagles for stars one day soon.

Do you really believe all those “we’ll make it right” BP commercials?
If you watch this hearing, that impression may well change.

When I talk on the stage, people often have the impression that I make up things as I go along. That isn’t true. I know a lot of things I want to say, I’m just not sure exactly when I’ll say them.

–From Lenny Bruce’s book How to Talk Dirty and Influence People

So if we’re going to keep this story under any kind of control, we’ll have to compress a lot of detail into some rather broad and sweeping statements, otherwise we’ll be at 3000 words before we know it.

Here’s the scene: a nondescript conference room in Houston is set with a table for the several Board members, who are drawn from across the Federal Government, including the old and exceptionally dysfunctional MMS (the Minerals Management Service), which has sort of morphed into the brand-new Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (the BOEM) and the Coast Guard.

In front of them is another table for the witness and their attorney, and right behind them are three very, very, long tables that are set up for the possibly four dozen attorneys that represent all the “parties of interest” who are involved in the hearing and require a bit of desk space (among that group are lawyers for BP, Transocean, Halliburton, certain individuals involved in the incident, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, where the now sunken vessel was “flagged”; that Nation is conducting their own investigation). Behind that are rows of “gallery seats” for the interested public.

(You can see the entire thing by visiting the C-SPAN site…but do grab a beverage and some snacks first.)

The way this all works is that the Board begins the process of eliciting information by questioning the witness themselves. Next up is the attorney for the Marshall Islands; the witnesses’ attorney and employer’s attorney then “cross examine”, and then every other lawyer in the room gets a crack at the witness, should they so desire.

Wrangling” all of this from his Co-Chair seat is retired Federal Judge Wayne Andersen; the Coast Guard has a “good cop/bad cop” team on the Board (the Board’s Recorder, Lieutenant Robert Butts, and Co-Chair Captain Hung Nguyen, respectively). Mssrs. David Dykes (the other co-chair) and Jason Matthews, who are representing BOEM on the Board, are among the technical and regulatory experts who are also asking some very pointed questions.

Since many witnesses also represent Halliburton, BP, and Transocean, there is very much a “trial of the century” atmosphere in the air…and everyone is trying to protect their own interests at the expense of the others.

As is common in these situations, the witnesses are busily playing “duck and cover”…and I have been privileged to watch what has essentially been the construction of the “pyramid of denial” by a team of master craftsmen.

Now these folks don’t deny like you or I would deny, instead, they have far more sophisticated techniques of obfuscation that they employ.

The first method: imagine a group of people, sitting in a circle, each pointing a finger at the person to their left.

Later, we saw a new approach: imagine a group of people, sitting in a circle, pointing both fingers at the people sitting to either side of themselves.

Even later, it became a three-dimensional game, as some of those in the circle began pointing either upward or downward…and the most sophisticated of all had personal attorneys available at the witness table to do some of that pointing for them.

Another effective tactic is to never be the person actually in charge of whatever it is someone wants to know about…and if your company operates worldwide, there are lots of places to move from, and to, along with lots of potential “shifting responsibilities”; sure enough, there are witnesses here who seem to be “Johnny-not-on-the-spot” over and over and over again.

The Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination can also provide a shield that’ll keep you out of the witness chair; that’s why BP engineers Mark Hafle and Brian Morel and Deepwater Horizon’s BP day shift manager Robert Kaluza have not given testimony to the Board.

Now this is not something your normal “mom and pop” denier can typically pull off, and that’s why it appears that at least some of these companies require an entire corps of specialists who don’t actually know anything at all, just so they can appear before courts and investigative boards such as this one, where they either “don’t recall”, or they spend an astonishing amount of time not looking into this “casualty”, as it’s described by those involved in the investigation.

One example that leaps to mind is a certain BP executive who, even though he’s in charge of the “drilling and completions” operations on various BP owned and leased oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, reports he has never read any information regarding this accident that BP might have developed since the April 20th event, and has never spoken to a BP investigator to enquire as to whether any “lessons learned” exist that he can apply to the operations he oversees.

There’s so much more to talk about—and apparently we’ll need a Part Two to make that happen—but for today what we need to know is that there has been another week of hearings, that if you watch those hearings you’ll have seen basically a 1/12th scale model of the lawsuits that are already piling up in Louisiana, Texas, and Federal Courts, and that if you watch certain portions of the hearings you can see bombast, tough questions…and the kind of elbow bending and finger pointing that can only lead to severe arthritis later on in life.

Next time, we’ll be talking about “command and control” on the Deepwater Horizon (did you know an oil rig is actually a ship?), about what actually happens down a well, and about why things like “centralizers” and “channeling” matter—a lot.

In the meantime, if you want to get your homework on, all the hearings, in more or less backwards order, can, as we said before, be found at the C-SPAN site…which is why we appreciate them very much.

So either get deeply buried in what will become the legal soap opera of the decade…or run away, quickly, depending on your needs…and when we meet again, we’ll have quite a bit more story to tell.

 

At Black Tie Ceremony, Feith Passes Torch To Barton June 21, 2010

Honestly, I am absolutely sick of commercial air travel these days. Just dealing with security is bad enough, but then there’s the airlines, and…hey, all you really need to know here is that there has to be a pretty good reason for me to fly cross-country.

Well, I had one Saturday night, which is how I came to be in the Colonnade Room of the Fairmount Hotel, Washington DC with about 250 of my closest friends, in a classic shawl-collar tuxedo, attending one of the most exclusive “passing of the torch” ceremonies in recent Washington memory.

And when it was all over, Douglas Feith was a happy man.

Respect to your great place! and let the devil
Be sometime honour’d for his burning throne.

— Duke Vincentio, from William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

There are probably some of you who are thinking: “That Feith name is familiar, but why?”

You know the name because, as Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, he was the guy who basically planned how the Bush Administration would run the Iraq War.

To suggest he was not exactly a genius in the job would be the charitable interpretation; General Tommy Franks is famous for referring to him as the “dumbest mother@*&#er alive”, which is the official title he’s carried ever since.

But on Saturday night, the torch was passed.

And by the time the speeches had ended, and the applause had died down, Texas’ Congressman Joe Barton was the new keeper of the sputtering flame.

This was not the outcome most observers expected.

When my invitation arrived on Monday, it looked as though BP’s Tony Hayward would be wearing the sash and carrying the scepter (for those who don’t know, the scepter is a gold-colored three foot long extension cord…and if that’s the stupidest thing you ever heard in your life, you get the idea), having basically earned himself a “Lifetime Achievement Award” in a mere 60 days.

This was going to be tough for Hayward, of course, because he was already planning to skip his Farr 52 (I’m told he calls it Bob) in the 79th “Round the Island” race, back home in the UK on the same day (and he had a good race, too, coming second to Leopard).

But before BP could really address the question of who would accept the award on his behalf, Congressman Barton pulled off an amazing feat; eclipsing Hayward’s 60 days of corporate idiocracy in a mere five minutes by actually apologizing to BP for the Obama Administration’s insistence that they don’t go through all the necessary legalities before BP actually begins paying claims for damages.

Considering how he got the title in the first place, it’s fair to say Barton’s acceptance speech began with some classic “message confusion”…

“…Where I come from what we’d do about it would be take ’em out and string ’em up…We wouldn’t go through the legalities that we have to because of our due process…”

…and then went on to include a few more pearls of wisdom:

“…If homosexuality was normal we wouldn’t any of us be here…You have to have heterosexual behavior in order to recreate the species…”

“…In January 2009, I introduced the College Football Playoff Act of 2009. This isn’t a government gridiron takeover. It simply says that the BCS can’t call a game the “national championship” unless the participants are determined by a playoff. It doesn’t dictate what kind of playoff or how many teams have to be involved—those decisions would rest with the BCS or NCAA.

The biggest complaint about my bill is that Congress shouldn’t get involved. While this doesn’t rise to the level of healthcare reform or climate change legislation, it is more important than honoring the 2,560th anniversary of the birth of Confucius—one of dozens of resolutions passed by the House in the past few months (I voted against it)…”

Luckily for me, my own prior life experience as a caterer had prepared me for the evening; I had tipped our server at the beginning of the meal, and with the amount of wine available at the table, I was already well enough along that there were no “spit takes” during Barton’s speech.

Possibly the happiest person in the room was BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg. When I caught up to him over a glass of champagne he was happy to explain Hayward’s absence, although it’s clear he really isn’t a native English speaker:

“After it became obvious he wouldn’t be leaving with the award, I told him he needed to get back and replace Captain Neil; that he should handle the “Bob” himself, and I talked to him today, and he said he got all the way to second…”

At which point I just couldn’t take any more, and the interview came to an end.

And it’s at this point that I should say that while this story really didn’t happen, and that this was satire, Barton’s “acceptance speech” was actually assembled from his own very real words, found here, here, and here.

I should also say that in real life Doug Feith might have actually caught a break here; but with several months left until November, and the Republicans looking more and more “self-defeatable”, if I were Joe Barton I wouldn’t be building any expensive “shrines” for his new accoutrement, as another awards transfer ceremony could be coming up sooner than anyone thinks.

WARNING – Blatant Self-Promotion Ahead: It’s Netroots Nation time once again, and the fine folks at Freedom To Marry have chosen me as a finalist for their Blog 4 Equality contest. If I am one of the chosen, it’s off to Vegas…in July. You can vote for that Don Davis guy here, which is my “in person” name, once every 24 hours, so vote early and often. Voting ends June 25th. Thanks very much, and we now return you to your regular programming.