Image: Curt Kuchta
Patrick Semansky  /  AP
Curt Kuchta, seen here testifying on May 27, was the captain of Transocean's Deepwater Horizon oil rig.
updated 7/19/2010 2:41:14 PM ET 2010-07-19T18:41:14

A Coast Guard official leading a federal probe of the deadly Deepwater Horizon rig explosion was accused Monday by company and rig worker attorneys of violating the rights of the rig's captain and top manager, as well as trying to intimidate a witness.

Monday's hearing started with a testy exchange between Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen, one of six panel members questioning witnesses, and lawyers for two rig workers who have been designated "parties in interest," or possible targets of the investigation who could be prosecuted by the Justice Department.

Attorneys for Deepwater Horizon captain Curt Kuchta and Jimmy Harrell, the rig's offshore installation manager, objected that their clients weren't named parties in interest until after their first testimony in May.

Pat Fanning, Harrell's attorney, said the delay deprived his client of "substantial rights."

"It is outrageous that you didn't afford him that opportunity at the very beginning of these hearings," Fanning said.

"By law, there was no presumption of guilt or innocence before the hearings proceeded," Nguyen said. "As the hearings progressed, we identified certain information that necessitated designation of Jimmy Harrell as a (party in interest)."

Kuchta's lawyer, Kyle Schonekas, said the panel "sandbagged" his client.

"It's just not fair," Schonekas said during a break in the hearing.

Kuchta had testified on May 27 about a delay in activating the rig's emergency disconnect system. The system, which didn't function after the April 20 explosion, allows the rig's "upper marine riser package" to break free from the lower part.

Image: Jimmy Harrell
Patrick Semansky  /  AP
Jimmy Harrell, Transocean's offshore installation manager on the Deepwater Horizon, testifies on May 27.

Harrell, who was Transocean Ltd.'s top manager aboard the rig, had testified that he never felt any pressure to accelerate the project's pace even though it was weeks behind schedule.

Nguyen also traded heated words with lawyers for Transocean, the majority owner of the rig, which was leased by BP PLC, and with the day's first witness, Stephen Bertone, Transocean's chief engineer on the Deepwater Horizon.

Bertone testified the rig had some mechanical problems before the blowout, including malfunctioning computer equipment in a "driller's chair" and problems with a thruster that lasted for several months. But he repeatedly said he didn't know or couldn't recall many details of the rig's maintenance history.

When Nguyen cautioned Bertone that the panel would be evaluating his "knowledge, skill and performance" as part of the probe, Transocean lawyer Edward "Ned" Kohnke accused him of trying to intimidate Bertone.

"I think what you're doing now is wrong," Kohnke said. "You're trying to challenge this witness to intimidate him because he said at various times, 'I can't recall.'"

"It's my duty to make sure you are well-informed of the process of this hearing," Nguyen told Bertone.

Bertone's attorney, Steve London, interjected and said, "If he truthfully can't remember something, then I don't see why you would be sitting here threatening him."

"If this committee wants the truth, he gave truthful answers," London added.

The Coast Guard and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (formerly the Minerals Management Service) heard six days of testimony in May and scheduled five more days this week.

The original witness list for this week's hearings included Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza, who were BP PLC's top managers aboard the rig, but neither is expected to appear.

Vidrine has been scratched from the list due to health reasons, according to a Coast Guard spokeswoman.

Kaluza refused in May to testify, exercising his constitutional right not to incriminate himself. His attorney, Shaun Clarke, said Kaluza won't be testifying this week "barring something unforeseen."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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