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Ex-BP engineer's lawyers to seek judge's disqualification from case on deleted text messages

NEW ORLEANS - Lawyers for a former BP engineer convicted of trying to obstruct an investigation of the company's 2010 Gulf oil spill plan to seek the disqualification of the federal judge who presided over the trial last month.

In an order, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. said he received correspondence Tuesday in which Kurt Mix's attorneys argue for the first time that he must disqualify himself because a spill-related civil claim had been filed on his behalf last year.

Duval said he informed defence attorneys and federal prosecutors in 2012 that his family owns a beachfront vacation home in Grand Isle and was entitled to seek compensation from BP. He said then he didn't see any reason to recuse himself.

Duval also noted that he isn't eligible for compensation through BP's multibillion-dollar settlement with lawyers for Gulf Coast residents and businesses. Any claims by federal judges in the Eastern District of Louisiana or their staff members are excluded from the settlement.

A jury convicted Mix of one count of obstruction of justice for deleting a string of text messages to and from a BP supervisor. Prosecutors accused Mix of trying to destroy evidence.

After the verdict, Mix's lawyers filed requests for Duval to throw out the jury's verdict and order a new trial, citing allegations of juror misconduct. The defence attorneys said they learned that one juror told the others during their deliberations about overhearing a conversation in a courthouse elevator that made that juror feel more comfortable about convicting Mix.

Mix, 52, of Katy, Texas, faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. His sentencing is set for March 26.

Duval said Mix's attorneys agreed in 2012 that the cause of BP's spill wasn't the "pivotal issue" in the case against their client, who worked on the company's efforts to halt the flow of oil from its blown-out well.

"The defendant maintained that he was in the nature of a first responder involved solely in attempting to 'kill the well.' (Prosecutors) concurred that this matter did not concern responsibility for the spill," Duval wrote Tuesday.

Neither side sought Duval's recusal before trial. However, Duval said Mix's lawyers argued in Tuesday's letter that the April 2013 filing of the judge's claim calls his impartiality into question.

A three-page claims form says the Grand Isle home owned by Duval and his wife was "oiled" after BP's spill and couldn't be used "for its intended purpose" during cleanup operations.

Duval instructed Mix's lawyers to file a formal request for his disqualification on Wednesday and gave prosecutors until Jan. 29 to respond. He scheduled a hearing on the matter for Feb. 13.

One of Mix's lawyers declined to provide a copy of the letter they sent to Duval on Tuesday because it hadn't been filed into the case's docket.

Duval also disclosed in 2012 that his son, David, worked as an attorney on the staff of the claims administrator for BP's settlement with private plaintiffs' lawyers. David Duval resigned from that position in October.

In a report last Friday, a former FBI director who is conducting a court-supervised investigation of the settlement program said David Duval sent an email containing confidential information to a law firm where relatives work. Louis Freeh's report also criticized David Duval for visiting a bar that received a $500,000 claim award.

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