Judge directs not guilty verdict for final defendant in Arkema case related to Harvey fire

HOUSTON – A judge issued a directed verdict Thursday against the final defendant in the criminal case brought against Arkema related to the fire at the company’s Crosby plant during Hurricane Harvey.

According to court records, a not guilty verdict was entered for Leslie Comardelle, the manager of the Crosby plant, on a charge of reckless emission. KPRC 2 legal analyst Brian Wice said the directed verdict was issued because there was insufficient evidence to bring the case to a jury.

Comardelle was the only remaining defendant in the case after the charges against Arkema CEO Richard Rowe and Michael Keough, the company’s logistics officer, were dropped.

Prosecutors said they were disappointed by the judge’s decision.

“We trust Harris County juries to weigh the evidence and decide whether a crime was committed; it is disappointing and frustrating this jury will not get to render a decision," Dane Schiller, spokesman for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said in a written statement. "Today’s ruling by a judge doesn’t change the fact that dangerous chemicals on Arkema property ignited and were belched in a cloud of toxic smoke over the surrounding communities, and a first responder there protecting people is now on a lung-transplant list.”

Prosecutors had originally accused the company and the three employees of recklessly releasing chemicals into the air during a fire that started when floodwaters inundated the plant and knocked out power to the cooling system used to keep certain chemicals stable.

Arkema has said that the fire was caused by an act of God and that plant officials did everything they reasonably could to prevent it.

In 2018, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said Arkema crews worked “to the best of their ability” to keep equipment that stabilized its organic peroxides, which are used to make such things as plastic resins from losing power.

But Arkema didn’t consider flooding of safety systems “a credible risk,” even though the plant was inside flood zones and its insurance company warned in 2016 that it was at risk.

Arkema’s defense team spoke Thursday after the judge’s verdict

Rusty Hardin, attorney on Arkema’s defense team, said the DA’s office made it a political case by investigating indicted three company officials. Hardin said Arkema was the only company being investigated but never addressed the other companies on the Houston Ship Channel.

“I’ve never seen such a ‘you know what’ show in my life in the criminal justice system," Hardin said.

He continued to say that Harvey was an unprecedented storm and that the company did everything they could and had no complaints compensating homeowners in civil court. Hardin said it was unprecedented for prosecutors to make it a crime and targeted Arkema for not anticipating Hurricane Harvey’s impact.

“This company, three years ago, and employees perform heroically trying to deal with what all the evidence in this trial showed was a totally an unprecedented natural disaster, for whatever reason, from day one, the district attorney decided to make it a political case started investigating this company, although none of the other companies on the ship channel,” he said. “Another, the other companies that were under the same kind of problems we had the day after.”

Hardin and the defense team praised Judge Belinda Hill and shamed anyone for criticizing her for calling out the “criminal activity” that showed prosecutors presenting false testimony to fit their narrative, according to Hardin. He said there was no evidence that proved any wrongdoing in the company that could have prevented the fire.

“There was absolutely not one piece of evidence against any of these three people. And that’s why she granted,” Hardin said.

Watch the full press conference below:

WATCH LIVE: Officials provide update on Arkema case after judge issues not guilty verdict in case

Posted by KPRC2 / Click2Houston on Thursday, October 1, 2020

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