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Three firms eyed in possible criminal probe of oil spill

A team of federal investigators known as the "BP squad" is assembling in New Orleans to conduct a wide-ranging criminal probe that will focus on at least three companies and examine whether their cozy relations with federal regulators contributed to the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, according to law enforcement and other sources.

The squad at the FBI offices includes investigators from the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard and other federal agencies, the sources said. In addition to BP, the firms at the center of the inquiry are Transocean, which leased the Deepwater Horizon rig to BP, and engineering giant Halliburton, which had finished cementing the well only 20 hours before the rig exploded April 20, sources said.

While it had been known that investigators are examining potential violations of environmental laws, it is now clear that they are also looking into whether company officials made false statements to regulators, obstructed justice or falsified test results for devices such as the rig's failed blowout preventer. It is unclear whether any such evidence has surfaced.

One emerging line of inquiry, sources said, is whether inspectors for the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency charged with regulating the oil industry - which is itself investigating the disaster - went easy on the companies in exchange for money or other inducements. A series of federal audits has documented the MMS' close relationship with the industry.

The Justice Department investigation - announced in June by Attorney General Eric Holder and accompanied by parallel state criminal probes in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama - is one of at least nine investigations into the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Unlike the public hearings held last week in Kenner, La., by a federal investigatory panel, the criminal probe has operated in the shadows. But it could lead to large fines for the companies and jail time for executives if the government files charges and proves its case.

Scott Dean, a spokesman for London-based BP, said the company "will cooperate with any inquiry the Justice Department undertakes, just as we are doing in response to other inquiries that are ongoing." Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for Transocean, a former U.S. firm now based in Switzerland, declined to comment, as did Teresa Wong, a spokeswoman for Houston-based Halliburton.

On the 100th day of the spill, a national environmental group reported that Gulf beaches from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle were closed or slapped with health warnings nearly 10 times more often this summer than last because of oil from BP's massive deepwater leak.

With AP

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