By MICHAEL KUNZELMANAssociated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A lawyer for BP PLC entered a not-guilty plea for the company as it was arraigned Tuesday on charges stemming from a deadly 2010 rig explosion and massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The plea in federal court was a procedural move paving the way for a later guilty plea. It doesn't signal that BP is backing away from its plea agreement, company and government lawyers said.
"Nothing in today's proceedings reflects any change in the plea agreement between BP and the government that was announced on Nov. 15," BP spokesman Scott Dean said in a statement. "In accordance with court procedures, BP will present the signed plea agreement to the presiding judge at the appropriate time for the court's consideration."
BP announced earlier this month that it will plead guilty to manslaughter, obstruction of Congress and other charges and pay a record $4.5 billion in penalties to resolve a federal probe of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Attorneys for BP and the Justice Department are scheduled to meet Dec. 11 with U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance to discuss a date for pleading guilty. Vance must decide whether to sign off on BP's plea deal.
A different judge presided over the arraignment and said he could only take a plea of not guilty.
"Anything further would be done before (Vance)," added U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle.
On Wednesday, two BP rig supervisors and a former BP executive are scheduled to be arraigned on separate criminal charges stemming from the disaster.
BP well site leaders Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine were indicted this month on manslaughter charges in the death of 11 rig workers. The federal indictment accuses them of disregarding abnormal high-pressure readings that should have been glaring indications of trouble just before the blowout of BP's Macondo well.
A separate indictment charges former BP executive David Rainey with concealing information from Congress about the amount of oil that was spewing from the well.
Their defense attorneys have said they will fight the charges.
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