Notice the increase in BP commercials on television lately? You know, the ones that show pristine beaches, people gallivanting in the water, "locals" claiming that all is well in the Gulf following the devastating explosion and oil spill in April of 2010 that released 4.9 million barrels of crude oil and gas into the ocean, killing 11 and injuring 17 others while virtually shutting down the seafood industry in the area? The commercials that show BP employees rattling off a bunch of statistics about the improvements that have been made since the spill? These are the same employees that appear at black tie events exclaiming their company's commitment to communities and the environment. All of this is part of a multimillion ad spend that BP has launched to win back the public's confidence... and the right to continue drilling in the Gulf. While several of the points in the commercials regarding the effectiveness of BP's response to the horrific accident are true, allow for me to provide some balance to their story. Yes, BP has spared no expense in cleaning up the oil. Yes, the company has set aside $1 billion to restore the environment and ecosystem. However, not everyone harmed by this tragic accident has enjoyed the successful resolution the company portrays.
You see, while 30 percent of the fund has been paid out to nearly 200,000 claimants, the vast majority of the money has gone to large corporations serving the tourism industry. These companies can afford expensive accounting firms, lobbyists and lawyers to represent them when seeking compensation from BP. Who is noticeably missing from receiving compensation are many of the individuals that make up the middle class, the working poor, and the small business owners. These are the mom and pop operations, the independent shrimpers and commercial fishermen and the like. These are the people that not only work the water to make a living, but also to feed their families. These are the voiceless people who live and work in the disenfranchised communities down the bayous struggling to make ends meet. These are the people that find it difficult to navigate their way through the myriad of red tape and high hurdles to receive the compensation from the fund they so rightfully deserve. These are the people that cannot afford attorneys to fight on their behalf. These are Cajuns, Creoles, African Americans and Native Americans. Many of the rules and regulations that BP has set forth for individuals to prove that they have been economically harmed by the accident are reminiscent of the old "Poll Tax" methods used to discourage. The vast majority of these people throw their hands up in frustration and despair and ultimately accept "Quick Pay" or nothing at all (Quick Pay is where you sign all your rights away in return for a $5,000 check). I understand that Ken Feinberg has indicated publicly that he expects to return more than half of the $20 billion fund back to BP. Unfortunately, we can already anticipate the sad scenario whereby Wall Street will applaud BP for recouping funds; Mr. Feinberg will be lauded, and the company will go right back to drilling in the Gulf, all while this already vulnerable group of fellow Americans continue to suffer. I borrow a quote from one of President Obama's speeches, "...that is inexcusable, it's wrong, it flies in the face of everything we stand for."
My firm is assisting a community that has been devastated by the Spill -- the Biloxi Chitimacha Confederation of Muskogee Indians. My colleagues and I have witnessed first-hand the challenges these fellow Americans face in trying to obtain a fair settlement from BP. I would like to invite Interior Dept. Chief Ken Salazar -- the person in charge of granting drilling licenses to big oil companies -- the people in those BP commercials who claim they are from these affected areas, and even Ken Feinberg himself to join us at our workshops in the Gulf where we help these fellow Americans complete the sixteen page claims application that comes with one hundred and twenty three pages of calculations and a laundry list of requests for supportive documentation. I'd like to show them how the "little people" are faring in the great success story that BP is pitching. I would recommend that instead of granting organizations like Catholic Charities over $100 million to assist disenfranchised communities, why not provide the funds directly to the affected communities? These funds could be used to create jobs, spur economic growth and provide this region with ancillary services it so badly needs -- job training, healthcare, affordable safe housing, etc. One of President Obama's greatest accomplishments - securing funds from BP without going through a long and protracted litigation battle - is falling short of its intention. BP and the powers that be are not adhering to the president's orders of providing swift and reasonable compensation to injured claimants... at least not to this vulnerable segment of the population.
Managing Partner, Fiduciary Management Group, LLC
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