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(Reuters) - A U.S. federal appeals court has reinstated a criminal charge of obstruction of Congress against a former BP Plc executive accused of downplaying the severity of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans on Friday said a lower court judge misinterpreted the obstruction statute in dismissing the charge against David Rainey, a former BP exploration vice president.
Rainey was also charged with making false statements to law-enforcement agents, which was not at issue in the government's appeal. He has pleaded not guilty.
The April 20, 2010, explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig led to 11 deaths and the largest U.S. offshore oil spill.
Prosecutors accused Rainey of telling the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and Environment on May 4, 2010, and in a subsequent letter that just 5,000 barrels of oil a day were being released, when his own estimates suggested a much higher flow rate.
In May 2013, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt dismissed the obstruction charge, calling it uncertain whether the law, which refers to "any committee of either House," applied to subcommittees as well. He also said the indictment did not allege that Rainey knew of the subcommittee probe he allegedly obstructed.
Overturning that ruling, Circuit Judge Stephen Higginson wrote for a three-judge 5th Circuit panel that the law's "plain meaning" shows that subcommittees are covered.
He also said that while the indictment did not "exactly recite" that Rainey knew of the probe, one could "fairly import" such knowledge from its details.
Michael Magner and Reid Weingarten, two of Rainey's lawyers, did not immediately respond on Sunday to requests for comment.
BP agreed in November 2012 to pay $4.5 billion in fines and other penalties and plead guilty to criminal charges related to the spill.
Three people have also been criminally charged.
Former BP engineer Kurt Mix on June 12 won a new trial as a federal judge threw out his conviction on an obstruction charge, citing misconduct by the jury forewoman.
Two rig supervisors, Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, have pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter charges.
The case is U.S. v. Rainey, 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 13-30770.
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Mohammad Zargham