Attorneys for Plains All American Pipeline company accused Santa Barbara District Attorney Joyce Dudley and California Attorney Kamala Harris of making false and inflammatory statements to the media about Plains’ responsibility for last May’s Refugio oil spill in a manner “patently designed to poison the jury pool and prejudice Plains.” These charges were made in legal documents Plains filed to prevent transcripts of the Grand Jury investigation into the oil spill from being made public.
That investigation led Harris and Dudley to file 46 criminal charges — four felonies and 42 misdemeanors — against Plains. The Texas-based pipeline company contends that the release of such documents will impair the ability of the company and James Buchanan — the company’s environmental regulatory compliance chief — to get a fair trial. Plains attorney Susan Yu described media coverage of the spill as “continuous, inflammatory and highly prejudicial,” noting that the local press had generated 500 distinct news articles about the spill. She also described as “prejudicial” televised images of “oil pouring into the ocean, oil-slicked waters and beaches, and oiled and dead animals and birds.” The release of Grand Jury transcripts, she contended, would make it that much harder for her clients to get a fair and impartial hearing.
Yu objected to comments made by Harris and Dudley during a May 17 press conference announcing the indictments. At that press conference Harris and Dudley described Plains as being “uncooperative” during the investigation. Yu said those remarks were “highly prejudicial and inaccurate.” She also said it was “improper” that Harris and Dudley released the identity, title, and age of the only individually named defendant, James Buchanan. As a result, she said, Buchanan and his family were “hounded” by members of the media seeking interviews.
Attorneys for Harris and Dudley pointed out that Plains was the first to issue a press release notifying the media that the company had been hit with 46 criminal charges. In the Plains release, the company characterized the spill as “an unfortunate accident,” that the charges had “no merit,” and that the company had “cooperated fully with all governmental regulators.” “Plains cannot have it both ways,” they replied in legal papers. At issue, they argued, “is the public’s right to the facts, not just the information Plains wants the public to hear.” To the extent the public has been prejudiced, attorneys for the prosecution have contended Plains attorneys retain the right to cross-examine and winnow out prospective jurors they believe are biased.
Plains has made similar arguments objecting to media requests to photograph inside the courtroom during court proceedings involving the criminal charges against Plains.
The next scheduled court date for the Plains case is June 30.