WASHINGTON – The Justice Department has started interviewing witnesses as part of the criminal and civil investigation of the oil spill that has sullied the Gulf of Mexico, Attorney General Eric Holder said in a television interview broadcast on Sunday.
The department has asked companies including BP Plc and the firm that drilled the well, Transocean Ltd, to preserve documents related to the explosion on the drill rig and subsequent spill as part of the government probe.
"We are in the process of accumulating documents, talking to witnesses on both the criminal side as well as the civil side," Holder said in an interview aired on CBS's "Face the Nation."
"There are a variety of entities and a variety of people who are the subjects of that investigation," he said, according to a transcript released by CBS. Holder declined to provide a timetable for possible action by the Justice Department.
Holder defended his decision to take the rare step of acknowledging publicly on June 1 that the Justice Department was investigating the oil spill. Typically, the department refuses to confirm or deny such investigations.
Holder said it was appropriate to alert the American people about the investigation, which he said was aimed at ensuring no tax dollars pay for the clean up "and to make sure that we held accountable anybody who was responsible for the spill."
The Justice Department could pursue a variety of civil and criminal charges, ranging from violations of the Clean Water Act to the Endangered Species Act. If violations are found, penalties could be in the multiple billions of dollars.
In addition to requesting the companies involved in the spill preserve documents, the Justice Department has asked BP and other companies involved to notify the government in advance about plans for any acquisitions, asset sales or other major financial moves.
BP already has agreed to establish a $20 billion fund to help those affected by the spill, which has soiled the shores of every U.S. state on the Gulf of Mexico.
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