Ex-official rejects BP ad’s ‘distorted’ claims

By Michael Kunzelman
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Two former top officials at the settlement program for compensating victims of BP’s 2010 Gulf oil spill say their recent resignations had nothing to do with the company’s allegations that they frequented a New Orleans strip club that received a settlement award.

Kirk Fisher, the settlement program’s former chief operating officer, said in an email to The Associated Press late Monday that he and former program CEO David Odom left last week to pursue “other opportunities.”

In an advertisement that ran Monday in three major newspapers, BP claimed Fisher and Odom resigned following reports that they entertained subordinates at a strip club that was awarded more than $550,000 for its settlement claim.

Fisher denied that he or Odom engaged in any wrongdoing and said they won’t address BP’s “shamefully distorted implications” about them.

“We want to be clear that the assertions made by BP in various newspapers had absolutely nothing to do with our decision to no longer be a part of the claims program. To allege any connection is simply not accurate,” he wrote.

The ad published Monday in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post was BP’s latest salvo in its aggressive campaign to challenge court-appointed claims administrator Patrick Juneau’s interpretation of the settlement terms governing payouts to businesses.

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A different BP ad earlier this month criticized Juneau’s staff for awarding more than $8 million to a celebrity chef who owns restaurants in cities across the country, “most of which are located outside of the Gulf.” The ad said the chef’s management company earned more revenue in 2010 than in the two years before the spill, but had a “fictional loss” because it paid licensing fees for the first time in 2010.

“Would you pay this claim? The Gulf Settlement Program did,” the ad says.

The ad didn’t name Emeril Lagasse, but the famous chef’s company responded with a statement that said it hasn’t received any payments on a claim it filed “in accordance with the settlement agreement that was set forth by BP and administered by the federal court in New Orleans.”

Juneau defended the award, saying a three-person appeal panel concluded it was correctly processed under the settlement terms that BP negotiated.

“As I have consistently stated said since day one, neither the Court nor I created this settlement agreement,” Juneau said in a statement. “We review and process claims based on the documentation provided by the claimant and as required by the Settlement Agreement.”

An earlier ad criticized Juneau’s staff for awarding more than $173,000 to an “adult escort service” with “alleged losses having no apparent connection to the spill.”

Monday’s ad, which refers to Fisher and Odom only by their former titles, notes that they are among five former members of Juneau’s management team who have resigned or been fired since the program’s inception 18 months ago.

“What kind of culture exists there?” the ad asks. “After this embarrassing exodus of facility leaders, what’s next?”

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U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier appointed former FBI director Louis Freeh to conduct an independent probe of the settlement program’s operations following the resignation of a lawyer on Juneau’s staff. The lawyer had received a portion of settlement proceeds for claims he had referred to a law firm before joining Juneau’s staff.

Freeh issued a report in September that concluded top members of Juneau’s staff engaged in conduct that was improper, unethical and possibly criminal. Freeh said he found examples of “actual and apparent conflicts of interest,” including Odom and Fisher’s formation of a company to work on unrelated litigation under the supervision of a firm that is a contractor for the BP settlement program.

Fisher said he and Odom performed their jobs “with the utmost integrity and transparency.”

“We are confident the claims process will continue efficiently and effectively for all who deserve compensation from this historically horrific tragedy to the Gulf Coast,” he wrote.

Juneau announced Monday that Odom will be replaced as CEO on an interim basis by David Welker, who was the special agent in charge of the FBI’s New Orleans office before becoming Juneau’s security head in June 2012.

More than 40,000 people and businesses have been paid more than $3.8 billion through the settlement program. BP’s deal with a team of private plaintiffs’ lawyers doesn’t have a cap, but the company initially estimated that it would pay roughly $7.8 billion to resolve the claims.

Later, as it started to challenge the business payouts, the company said it no longer could give a reliable estimate for how much the settlement will cost.