Cross-posted from Think Progress.

During a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee this morning, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) “apologize[d]” to BP CEO Tony Hayward, accusing the White House of an illegal “shakedown” of the foreign oil giant to secure a $20 billion escrow fund for Gulf Coast damages. Barton repeated the Republican attack that the escrow fund is a result of a White House “shakedown” that contravenes “due process,” saying that he was “ashamed” and would “go to jail” if he abused his elected powers similarly. Although he admitted that BP was liable for the billions of dollars of damages to the American people caused by its catastrophic oil disaster, Barton said “I apologize” that BP had to establish this “slush fund,” which he called “a tragedy of the first proportion”:

BARTON: I’m speaking totally for myself, I’m not speaking for the Republican Party, I’m not speaking for anybody in the House of Representatives but myself. But I’m ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday. I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown, in this case a $20 billion shakedown — with the Attorney General of the United States who is legitimately conducting a criminal investigation and has every right to do so to protect the interests of the American people — participating in what amounts to a $20 billion slush fund that is unprecedented in our nation’s history, that’s got no legal standing, which I think sets a terrible precedent for the future.

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If I called you into my office, and I had the subcommittee chairman Mr. Stupak with me, who was legitimately conducting an oversight investigation on your company, and said if you put so many millions of dollars in a project in my congressional district, I could go to jail and should go to jail. Now, there is no question that British Petroleum owns this lease, that BP made decisions that objective people think compromise safety. There is no question that BP is liable for the damages. But we have a due process system where we go through hearings, in some cases court cases, litigation and determine what those damages are and when those damages should be paid.

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So I’m only speaking for myself, I’m not speaking for anybody else, but I apologize, I do not want to live in a country where anytime a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong is subject to some sort of political pressure that is again in my words amounts to a shakedown. So I apologize.

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The “slush fund” will not be managed by the federal government or BP, but an independent third party, funded over four years with a small fraction of BP’s annual revenues. Barton has taken $1.4 million from the oil and gas industry, including $27,350 from BP. In Barton’s world, it seems that the small people have to pay for their mistakes, but companies don’t.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs responded to Barton’s comment, calling it “shameful” that he “seems to have more concern for big corporations that caused this disaster than the fishermen, small business owners, and communities whose lives have been devastated by the destruction. Congressman Barton may think that a fund to compensate these Americans is a ‘tragedy,’ but most Americans know that the real tragedy is what the men and women of the Gulf Coast are going through right now. Members from both parties should repudiate his comments.”

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By calling the Gulf Coast relief money a “slush fund,” Barton was following the lead of conservative thinker Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing pundits, Media Matters notes.