As the U.S. governmentinto the nation's worst oil spill, executives at BP could face potential jail time if convicted of obstruction of justice and fraud charges, according to CBS News chief legal correspondent Jan Crawford.
"If you lie to the government, you can go to jail - if the government proves you made a knowing, false misstatement," Crawford said Wednesday on CBS' Early Show.
The probe could ultimately expose BP and the two other companies - Halliburton and Transocean - to a multitude of criminal charges. As a result, the companies could be looking at penalties and fines that could well exceed the $100 million Exxon paid to settle criminal charges after the 1989 Valdez oil spill.
Crawford said the charges brought depend on the specific laws that prosecutors are reviewing. Several environmental laws are now under review - the Clean Water Act and Migratory Bird Act, for example.
But it's the other traditional criminal statutes that could land BP and the other companies in real trouble.
"That's where you get some of the more serious criminal penalties, like obstruction of justice, conspiracy, fraud," Crawford said. "If BP, or executives made false statements, and several senators already have accused BP of making false statements, not only in getting the permits to dig that well, but also in kind of underplaying the gravity of the spill."
The charges may also be at the state level, as it was with the Exxon Valdez spill. In that case, Crawford notes, the federal government coordinated its efforts with the state of Alaska. The current oil spill, however, is having a detrimental impact on several states.
"I expect that you'll see similar efforts to coordinate this, similar efforts to consolidate all these investigations and similar efforts to kind of spread out the payment at the end of the day... to the states and the people who are hurt the most," Crawford said.
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