But investors on Friday shrugged off that admission. After the announcement Friday of a share buyback program of up to $3.3 billion, Halliburton's stock closed at $45.98, up 3.7 percent.
And the terms of the company's settlement with Justice also could be viewed less harshly:
?Halliburton will pay the maximum fine for a misdemeanor, but the $200,000 is equal to just under four minutes' revenue for the company.
?The company will pay $55 million to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, but that payment might be considered tax deductible since the foundation, a conservation grant-making organization created by Congress in 1984, is a nonprofit group.
?The "cementing technology director" who instructed two colleagues to destroy computer simulations that would have been evidence in the investigation of the oil spill has retained his anonymity and continues to work for the company, officials said. That, some legal experts say, undercuts whatever deterrent the case might have against future misdeeds.
"Given the scale of the harm caused by the oil spill, it seems surprising that the government would accept a plea to a relatively minor charge," said J. Kelly Strader, a law professor at Southwestern Law School. Destruction of evidence often leads to multiple felony counts, he said, including obstruction of justice, as it did in the case of Enron's market manipulation a decade ago.
Halliburton said Justice agreed to not pursue any charges beyond the misdemeanor in return for cooperation. And its fine and payment to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation is tiny compared with settlements made earlier by TransOcean and BP.
Justice could still pursue criminal charges against individuals involved in destroying evidence, but company spokeswoman Susie McMichael said, "We have no reason to believe that the DOJ intends prosecution of any of them."
Strader said that if Halliburton's cooperation leads to criminal charges against others "then the plea to a relatively minor crime might make sense from the government's perspective." If not, "then this looks like a slap on the wrist that would do little to deter such obstructive behavior in the future," he said.
"One might read this as a deterrent in the reverse sense, in that it strongly encourages future corporate defendants to admit guilt, make separate unconditional payouts and cooperate like crazy, with the 'carrot' being a mere misdemeanor conviction," said Robert Weisberg, law professor and director of Stanford Law School's criminal justice center.