A federal judge rebuked the State of California last week for destroying potentially exculpatory evidence in a case against an asphalt company accused of oil spills.
The company, formerly known as Greka Oil & Gas Inc., and now known as HVI Cat Canyon Inc. (HVI-CC), was accused of “spills of oil and the by-product known as produced water at its leases in Santa Maria between 2005 and 2010,” where it harvested organic tar for use on California roads, the Santa Barbara News-Press reports.
The state and federal governments filed a joint action against the company in 2011. But the company claimed that the amount of oil it is accused of spilling is “exponentially” greater than the amount it actually produced. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife was responsible for collecting the evidence against the company. But it delayed placing a “litigation hold” on information it had compiled, and as a result, significant evidence was erased or destroyed. Worse, the state government told the courts repeatedly that it had put in place a “litigation hold” to preserve the evidence, when in fact it had not done so.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Ralph Zarefsky recommended that the state face sanctions for its behavior — though he declined to recommend that the case be dismissed, since the destruction may have been negligent rather than malicious.
In a ruling quoted by the News-Press, he referred to the Watergate scandal, in which President Richard M. Nixon withheld key tapes of White House conversations: “History warns us that what is lost in an eighteen minute gap in an electronic recording may be more revealing than other evidence that was preserved,” he wrote.
Reviewing Zarefsky’s recommendations, U.S. District Court Judge Fernando M. Olguin also reportedly reprimanded the state, and he ruled that the state would not be able to call on four tainted witnesses. “[T]he court cannot downplay, as the state seems to do, the inaccurate statements its counsel made to HVI-CC’s counsel regarding the issuance of a litigation hold,” he said, according to the News-Press. He also ordered the state to reimburse nearly $1 million to the defendant’s lawyers for depositions involving 16 witnesses.
The case against the company is still ongoing.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. His new book, See No Evil: 19 Hard Truths the Left Can’t Handle, is available from Regnery through Amazon. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.