The Deepwater Horizon well lists into the Gulf of Mexico in April. Photo courtesy of ABC26.
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Last fall, Iris Cross beamed into millions of homes, the friendly BP worker hailing from New Orleans who assured TV viewers that the oil giant won’t stop cleaning up the worst oil spill in U.S. history “until we make this right.”

She became the very public face of BP, a soothing contrast to former CEO Tony Heyward, whose PR gaffes cemented public opinion against the oil company.

This is not the first time Cross sought to soothe public anger from a BP disaster. One of her efforts in 2006 so angered a judge that BP was accused of jury tampering and threatened with fines and contempt charges.

Court records reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity show that Cross and her boss admitted in testimony five years ago that they signed thousands of letters to Texans aimed at polishing BP’s image — just days before jury selection was to begin in a civil trial over a 2005 BP refinery explosion that killed 15 workers and injured scores more.

The presiding judge, court transcripts show, derided the letter-writing campaign as a “stunt” clearly designed to influence jurors.

“We have a jury panel coming in today. And it would take an absolute idiot not to figure that out,” Galveston County, Texas Judge Susan E. Criss chided BP during a hearing Nov. 6, 2006 called to address the impact of the letters on jury selection.

“This is so far out of line,” Criss scolded.

BP declined to allow the Center to interview Iris Cross.

The tale of the 2006 BP public relations campaign was overshadowed by the devastation of the Texas City refinery and the subsequent litigation that forced BP to pay at least $2 billion to compensate victims and $137 million in federal fines.

But one of the lawyers in the case says the 2006 and 2010 PR efforts provide an unprecedented window into the multimillion dollar efforts BP uses to gloss over the human, environmental and economic damages caused by the two massive disasters.

“I wouldn’t let Charles Manson date my daughter because I don’t presume he’s rehabilitated and I’m not sure BP’s been rehabilitated either,” said Brent Coon, the lawyer who headed the civil suit against BP in the refinery case. “They had a corporate-wide culture that is deficient with respect to following the law and deficient with respect to safety.”

The TV ads describe Cross as working for “BP Community Outreach.” Her current resume lists her as “General Manager, External Relations” with BP’s Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, but she has a long history as a public relations professional.

Cross’s career began with oil company Amoco, where she had worked primarily in the public relations department from 1981 until the 1999 merger with BP. After the merger, she spent four years in BP’s Houston Westlake office as “director of community relations.” After taking two years off following a marriage, she returned to BP full time in June of 2005 as director of community relations for BP Texas City.

Her appearance in at least two commercials was part of a PR campaign designed to repair BP’s public image in the wake of the worst oil spill in American history. Between the start of the spill and the end of August, BP spent over $93 million on advertisements, three times what the oil giant spent in April through July 2009. It’s a number that outraged lawmakers.

“BP’s extensive advertising campaign that is solely focused on polishing its corporate image in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon blowout disaster is making people angry. As small businesses, fishermen, and mom and pop motels, hotels and restaurants struggle to make ends meet, they are bombarded by BP’s corporate marketing largess day after day,” Rep. Cathy Castor, D-Fla., said in September. “While BP certainly has the right to advertise, its approach has been insensitive to the taxpayers and business owners harmed by the Deepwater Horizon blowout.”

It’s unclear exactly how much of that money was dedicated to ads featuring Cross, but they were regular features on TV throughout the late summer and early fall. “I was born in New Orleans. My family still lives here,” she says in one ad.

“BP is going to be here until the oil is gone, and the people and businesses are back to normal — until we make this right.”

Contentious hearing

At the center of the 2006 controversy was a set of letters sent out by BP days ahead of jury selection in the refinery trial. The letters were addressed to either “BP Retiree” or “BP Texas City Neighbor,” including local businesses and community leaders. Although the letters shared identical language, some batches of letters were signed by Iris Cross while others were signed by Neil Geary, her supervisor.

The one page letter sought to address “reports in the media about what happened at BP Texas City” and claimed that the company has “made substantial changes and improvements” at Texas City.

“We have made substantial changes and improvements at BP Texas City and are in action on a program of multiple recommendations contained in BP’s final accident investigation report and other sources” the letter said. “BP has acknowledged that it was aware of infrastructure and safety culture problems at the refinery prior to March 23, 2005 and we have been in action in response. BP is working to improve plant integrity, safety culture and process safety management at all BP-operated facilities in order to prevent such accidents in the future.”

Included with the letter was a “fact sheet” that addressed “key issues raised in media reports” and a copy of a company newsletter that Cross urged readers to share with their family.

The fact sheet claimed that “Maintenance spending [at Texas City] also was higher than the industry average per barrel of throughput,” while also noting BP acknowledges that while there were safety risks at Texas City, “it is not accurate to say that BP was not addressing these issues.” The fact sheet concluded that “BP will spend more than $1 billion at Texas City over the next five years” on recommended changes with an eye towards increasing safety in the future.

The letters came to light when Judge Criss received a copy in the mail and quickly convened a hearing on Nov. 6, 2006. A combative Criss called BP to the courtroom for sending these letters out just ahead of the trial.

Representatives for BP acknowledged at the hearing that they were aware of the upcoming trial when they sent the letters out, but denied that they were attempting to influence the jury pool in any way.

At the November hearing, lawyers for BP argued that the letter was a “fact sheet,” not a mailing. The difference between a “fact sheet” and a “mailing” was important, because Criss had put a previous ban on advertising that “would be used to taint the jury pool.”

Criss defined such advertising as private communications to potential jurors where Coon and his lawyers would not be able to respond.

During the course of the hearing, Geary, the manager for public affairs at BP Texas City and Cross’ boss, told the judge that he organized the original letters. However, Geary denied that the letters were targeted, noting that while a lawyer fact-checked the letters before they were sent out, the recipients of the list were not reviewed by anyone at BP. Criss found that explanation dubious, noting that the letters were sent to the home addresses of two local judges.

“You are trying to convince me that you have not looked at this list of people you’re mailing to that you want to know your spin on your company and you did not review that list?”

“That’s absolutely correct,” replied Geary.

In both the November hearing and separate depositions, Geary and Cross cast the letters as having been born of confusion. “Do I know the author [of the letter]? No,” Cross said in her deposition, later confirming that she did not try to check the accuracy of the information she was sending out.

That argument held no water with Criss, who at the November hearing admonished them that “I told [BP], don’t come in here with this ‘one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing excuse.’”

It also didn’t hold up with Coon, the lawyer whose trial was set for jury selection. He contends that Geary and Cross were both trained PR professionals with knowledge of how to spin the situation. “They know what they’re doing, they know why they’re doing it, and it’s their job to do it,” says Coon.

Coon asserted that Geary may have perjured himself by downplaying the number of letters that were sent out. At the Nov. 6 hearing, Geary said the letters only went out to 900 people, just 775 of whom could be potential jurors. Then in early April, Cross came forward with knowledge of another 7,000 letters that had been sent out but not discussed in the Nov. 6 hearing. The judge said she was “concerned there is evidence of perjury” from Geary and allowed Coon to depose Geary once more.

A spokesman for BP declined to allow the Center to interview either Cross or Geary.

“The issue of the letters quickly expanded to include pretrial communications and publicity by both sides in that litigation,” said Scott Dean, BP’s general manager for press relations. “The court never ruled on the complaints by either side, and the matter was eventually dismissed by the agreement of both the plaintiffs and BP. In any event, pretrial communications and publicity by both parties did not interfere with the selection of any jury at any of the several trials in that litigation.”

At the end of the Nov. 6 hearing, Criss repeatedly told BP representatives “I don’t want your spin” and vowed to fine the company for every member of the jury pool who received one of these letters. She also left open the possibility of going “beyond fines” if BP attempted similar communications to potential jurors in the future.

Due to legal restrictions, Criss could not comment on many aspects of the case, but did tell the Center that “whatever I said was what I felt at the time. The transcripts can speak for themselves.”

Criss said she presided over 4,016 cases related to the explosion in a three and a half year period, and that after the November hearing, BP “didn’t repeat that stunt.” While she held the threat of more sanctions over BP’s head, in the end she decided not to impose fines for the letters, given how many cases BP had agreed to settle.

Paul Butler, a professor at the George Washington School of Law, told the Center that while he could not recall letters being sent out in a similar situation, he considered it common for companies to buy billboards or newspaper advertisements ahead of a trial. With large corporations, “especially those with PR issues, there’s almost an expectation that the corporation will try to get its point across.”

Proving jury tampering is extremely difficult, according to Butler, a former federal prosecutor specializing in public corruption. “Corporations have a First Amendment right to express themselves.…I would think what BP has done falls well within its First Amendment right of free expression, rather than the criminal laws’ rather strict construction of what it means to tamper with the jury.”

Gene Grabowski, senior vice president and chair of the crisis and litigation practice at Levick Strategic Communications, likened letter campaigns, newspaper ads and billboards to what groups like Planned Parenthood do when they are under attack — directly communicating their point of view to the public.

“As long as there’s not a gag on publicity, as long as there isn’t a court ordered gag, it’s perfectly legitimate to share information on the background of a case,” he said. “We’ve seen it done and we have worked with clients to do that.”

Still, Butler noted that corporations know what they’re doing by advertising ahead of trials. “Obviously all of those ads that we’ve all seen since the oil spill have been designed to influence public opinion about BP,” he said. “Certainly the people who created those ads knew litigation was a likely possibility and that some of those people who would see those ads are potential jurors.”

Hundreds of lawsuits related to the oil spill have been filed against BP, ranging from local businesses impacted by the spill to the families of the 11 men killed when the Deepwater Horizon rigexploded one year ago. The Justice Department has also filed a civil suit against BP and other companies involved in the spill. The Gulf Coast Claims Facility, set up by BP as required by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, has received around 857,000 claims from more than 500,000 individuals. Of those, $3.8 billion has been paid to 300,000 claims.

Oil spill PR efforts echo Texas City

When he first saw Cross on the TV screen in the aftermath of the oil spill, Coon wasn’t surprised. “BP is not very creative. They don’t learn from past lessons. They just have a playbook and don’t deviate very much from it,” he said.

BP’s Texas City refinery, one of the largest in Texas, exploded on March 23, 2005, killing 15 workers and injuring scores more. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hit the company with the largest fine in agency history, and the explosion also resulted in a series of lawsuits from the victims of the blast.

Coon, who managed a significant number of the Texas City cases, called BP’s public relations team a well-trained organization befitting a multibillion-dollar company — one that is willing to go to great lengths to protect its profits, including hiring private detectives to dig up dirt on plaintiff lawyers and investigate victims of the Texas City explosion.

He pointed to an email sent from Patricia Wright, at the time the company’s vice president of communications for North America, mere hours after the explosion.

“Media coverage has been very heavy — looks like injuries and loss of life are heavy as well … Expect a lot of follow up coverage tomorrow. Then I believe it will essentially go away — due to the holiday weekend. Dc (sic) is taking care of the federal folks and Glenn is handling the state officials.”

The email concludes that “This is a very big story in the US right now — but the Terri Schiavo story is huge as well.” The “Schiavo” reference is to the case of Terri Schiavo, a brain-dead woman who drew major national attention when her husband attempted to take her off life support.

Although Texas City was the signature BP-related disaster until last year’s oil spill, the company has had a checkered past when it comes to safety. A 2010 Center report found that BP was responsible for 97 percent of all flagrant violations found in the refining industry by government safety inspectors over the past three years, and a government report on the Gulf spill declared that “BP’s safety lapses have been chronic.”

In February BP announced plans to sell the Texas City refinery.

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