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Judge accepts Transocean plea in gulf spill

HOUSTON — A federal judge in New Orleans approved on Thursday Transocean’s agreement with prosecutors to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge and pay $400 million in criminal penalties for its role in the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil well blowout that left 11 workers dead and resulted in a yearlong moratorium on deepwater drilling.

The Switzerland-based owner and operator of the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon oil rig was charged with negligently discharging oil into the gulf.

“I believe the plea agreement is reasonable and is accepted,” said U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo. No witnesses came to court to object to the agreement, and Milazzo said she received no letters of opposition.

Transocean’s criminal fine is the second highest assessed for an environmental disaster, but it pales in comparison with the $1.26 billion in criminal fines that BP was assessed for the same accident that spewed millions of barrels of crude oil into the gulf, soiling hundreds of miles of beaches in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

The judge’s action effectively closes the book on prosecutions of Transocean, but the company must still settle with a plaintiffs’ steering committee representing more than 100,000 people and businesses claiming damages.

—Clifford Krauss, The New York Times

Illinois senate approves same-sex marriage bill

CHICAGO — With a Valentine’s Day vote, the Illinois Senate approved a bill Thursday that would legalize same-sex marriage, inching the home state of President Barack Obama closer to becoming the 10th in the nation, plus the District of Columbia, to allow gay couples the right to wed.

The legislation passed 34-21, a margin that many considered almost impossible, even in the Democratic-controlled legislature, just a few years ago. The result was seen not just as a hard-fought victory for gay-rights advocates in Illinois but also as part of a broader, rapid shift in public opinion on same-sex marriage.

“It wasn’t too long ago that people did not think they would see this day,” said State Rep. Greg Harris, who will be advocating for the bill in the House. “A lot of parents said they didn’t think their children would see this day.”

The vote comes two years after lawmakers passed civil-union legislation in Illinois. At the time, it was considered a major victory for supporters.

—Steven Yaccino, The New York Times

Lautenberg, New Jersey Senator, says he’ll step down

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey will retire rather than seek a sixth term next year, he said Thursday.

Lautenberg, at 89 the oldest member of the Senate, was to officially announce his decision Friday in Paterson, where he grew up the son of poor immigrant parents.

“This is not the end of anything, but rather the beginning of a two-year mission to pass new gun safety laws, protect children from toxic chemicals, and create more opportunities for working families in New Jersey,” he said in a statement. “While I may not be seeking re-election, there is plenty of work to do before the end of this term, and I’m going to keep fighting as hard as ever for the people of New Jersey in the U.S. Senate.”

Lautenberg, a Democrat who earned his fortune as a founder of the huge payroll firm Automatic Data Processing, had left the Senate once before, in 2001, but hated retirement so much that he jumped at the chance to return when the state’s Democratic Party was looking for someone to replace Sen. Robert Torricelli, then facing an ethics investigation, on the ballot in 2002.

—Kate Zernike, The New York Times