POLITICS

Oil Spill Lawsuits: BP Spending Big To Acquire An Army Of Expert Witnesses

07/16/2010 02:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the latest salvo of BP's War On Everything, the company is deploying its deep pockets in an attempt to buy up every single scientist it can get its hands on, in order to create an army of expert witnesses to take up its side in court. I guess the legacy of George Steinbrenner lives on!

Ben Raines of Mobile, Alabama's Press-Register captures it, in gobsmacking fashion:

BP PLC attempted to hire the entire marine sciences department at one Alabama university, according to scientists involved in discussions with the company's lawyers. The university declined because of confidentiality restrictions that the company sought on any research.

Emphasis mine, because: wow! Fortunately, for a wide variety of reasons, some of the scientists BP is approaching are balking at the overtures. For example, the contracts that BP is offering place substantial restrictions on what research scientists under their employ can publish, share, or even discuss. Also: some of the scientists approached apparently have that thing you often hear people talk about... what is that called again? Oh, yeah! A moral compass.

"We told them there was no way we would agree to any kind of restrictions on the data we collect. It was pretty clear we wouldn't be hearing from them again after that," said Bob Shipp, head of marine sciences at the University of South Alabama. "We didn't like the perception of the university representing BP in any fashion."

Still, Raines reports that "[s]cientists from Louisiana State University, Mississippi State University the University of Southern Mississippi and Texas A&M have reportedly accepted," wooed by the prospect of earning up to $2,000 a week for consulting typically allowed by academic institutions.

But if you are considering selling your academic soul to the destroyers of the Gulf Region, there are still reasons to think twice:

Robert Wiygul, an Ocean Springs lawyer who specializes in environmental law, said that he sees ethical questions regarding the use of publicly owned laboratories and research vessels to conduct confidential work on behalf of a private company.

Also, university officials who spoke with the newspaper expressed concern about the potential loss of federal research money tied to professors working for BP.

With its payments, BP buys more than the scientists' services, according to Wiygul. It also buys silence, he said, thanks to confidentiality clauses in the contracts.

Wiygul goes on to note that the contracts are "exceptionally one-sided," tantamount to an agreement to "an agreement to join BP's legal team," and could potentially limit career options down the road:

The contracts have the added impact of limiting the number of scientists who're able to work with federal agencies. "Let's say BP hired you because of your work with fish. The contract says you can't do any work for the government or anyone else that involves your work with BP. Now you are a fish scientist who can't study fish," Wiygul said.

Of course, maybe there won't be any fish left to study after the oil spill crisis is over? So this could all work out perfectly.

NOTE: This piece has been strike-through corrected to reflect that it was scientists from the University of Southern Mississippi who have reportedly accepted contract work, not Mississippi State University. We regret the error.

[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not? Also, please send tips to tv@huffingtonpost.com -- learn more about our media monitoring project here.]

Suggest a correction