As BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward spent Thursday parrying hostile questions from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, he clearly was not playing to the court of public opinion.
Rather, the man who has become the face of the biggest oil spill in U.S. history served up clipped and evasive responses that appeared tailored to fending off legal challenges.
“I was not involved or aware of any decision around this well while it was being drilled,” Hayward responded to one query during the hearing by the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
Throughout the day, lawmakers of both parties sought in vain to press the chief executive about the procedures in the Gulf of Mexico drilling operation that have been questioned by experts and other oil company executives.
But Hayward, who became chief executive of the London-based company three years ago, indicated that he was not involved in the daily engineering decisions. When asked about problems in drilling the well that were turned up by Energy and Commerce investigators, Hayward said he only became aware of them when he read their reports.
He added that he was “not prepared to speculate on what may or may not have made a difference” in the well procedures.
When pressed for details, he told lawmakers, “I can’t answer your questions,” “I can’t recall that number” and “You’ll get that as soon as we can make it available.”
Hayward’s unwillingness to be pinned down drew a rare bipartisan rebuke from the panel, where Republicans have generally been as eager to blame the Obama administration as BP for the disaster.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the Energy and Commerce chairman, ripped Hayward for his minimalist approach to answering questions.
“You’re kicking the can down the road and acting like you had nothing to do with it,” he said.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) also told Hayward she was “indeed a little bit frustrated” at his inability to answer questions and asked him about the chain of command at his company.
“I’m clearly the ultimate in charge but wasn’t involved in the decision making” on the well, he told her.
Even when Hayward did provide some answers, he did not satisfy lawmakers who came prepared to draw blood.
When Hayward explained that his company had experience and had “drilled hundreds of wells around the world,” Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) tartly responded: “I know. That’s what scares me.”
While Hayward’s performance drew scathing reviews from lawmakers, Frank Maisano, a crisis communications expert, said the executive was doing what he needed to do to reduce risk to himself and his company.
“He has been very scripted here,” said Maisano, who works for Bracewell & Giuliani. “He is trying not to let himself out of the box because once you get out of the box, you put yourself at risk.”
Maisano said there was no upside to Hayward being more open in this forum.
“He’s not going to win in the court of public opinion in front of this crowd,” he said.
Hayward’s appearance, his first in front of a Congressional panel since the oil rig exploded in April, drew the kind of attention usually reserved for Hollywood celebrities.
A throng of cameras followed him into the Rayburn House Office Building hearing room, where he sat alone at a table facing the lawmakers.
Outside, a long line of people, including lobbyists, interns and protesters, waited to get in. Many had to settle for an overflow room.
Hayward’s opening statement was briefly interrupted by a protester, who had what looked like oil on her hands and who screamed that he should be arrested. She was escorted out of the room after a tussle with Capitol Police.
Looking somber, Hayward spoke in a low voice, so much so that lawmakers had to ask him to speak into his microphone so they could hear his responses.
Accused in the past of not showing enough empathy for victims of the spill, Hayward apologized for the effect of the spill and said he was devastated by the loss of life.
While Hayward was the star attraction, he was almost upstaged by Rep. Joe Barton, who stunned the room when he apologized to the BP chief for the deal brokered by the White House to have the company set up a compensation fund.
The Texas Republican called the fund a “shakedown” of BP by the White House that amounted to a “slush fund.” His comments were immediately denounced by Democrats and some Republicans who later pressured the outspoken Texan to backpedal on his remarks.
A number of lawmakers reacted to Hayward, who is British, with the same hostility that the Colonialists harbored toward the Redcoats during the Revolutionary War.
“You’ve polluted our coasts,” Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) said to Hayward.
Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak made a snide reference to Hayward’s remark that he wanted to get on with his life.
“Mr. Hayward, I’m sure you will get your life back and with a golden parachute back to England,” the Michigan Democrat said.
Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), in pressing Hayward on whether he agreed with Barton’s comments, suggested the executive didn’t understand the American meaning of shakedown and slush fund.
“I realize we speak the same language, but it is not always the same language,” Braley said.
Hayward indicated he well understood the meaning.
“I certainly didn’t think it was a slush fund,” he said.