NEW ORLEANS – A court filing last week by BP PLC included what the company deemed a suspicious claim filed by a senior plaintiff’s lawyer as evidence that Claims Administrator Patrick Juneau is unsuitable to oversee the massive oil spill settlement program.
The claim, filed by New Orleans-based law firm Herman Herman & Katz, contends that Plaquemines Parish resident Kim Champlin, of Buras, and his extended family, routinely ate 6,500 pounds of oysters, 3,300 pounds of shrimp, 550 pounds of blue crabs and 100 pounds of redfish in the year leading up to the oil spill. According to BP’s filing, Champlain received just over $250,000 from the settlement trust fund as a result of the claim.
The claim, submitted as part of BP’s drive to have Juneau removed as claims administrator, marks the second time within a month that a seafood claim filed by a Plaintiff’s Steering Committee (PSC) firm has been flagged as suspicious. Earlier in the month, Cunningham Bounds LLC, of Mobile, agreed to pay back fees it collected from the claim of Jason Zirlott after investigators said it appeared fraudulent.
The PSC is an 18-lawyer team headed by Stephen Herman that engineered the settlement. According to that settlement, PSC lawyers stand to divide $660 million in fees when the case ends, in addition to the fees they receive by representing individual claimants.
Champlin’s claim, which was completed and signed by Herman Herman & Katz attorney Soren Gisleson, marks the second time he has been a plaintiff in an oil spill case. In 2008, court records show, Champlain was one of numerous plaintiffs who sued barge owner American Commercial Lines following a collision and subsequent oil spill on the Mississippi River. That suit was eventually dismissed after Champlin and the other plaintiffs failed to provide proof of their losses.
In the subsistence claim, Champlin lists nine family members, including himself, ranging in age from 25 to 80 years old, as receiving seafood he caught to supplement their regular groceries. The other family members, the claims form says, lived in Pensacola, Fla. – about a five-hour drive from Buras. Champlain said his fishing activities made up 45 percent of the entire diet of his extended family – the maximum dietary percentage allowed under the settlement.
In its filing, BP said the Champlin claim is indicative of cases that were paid out by Juneau’s office that should have merited further review.
“BP recognized that subsistence claims presented an area particularly vulnerable to fraud with little means of verifying the information submitted,” the filing says. “Without an interview requirement, the CSSP (Court Supervised Settlement Program) lacks any system to verify highly dubious subsistence claims.’’
The claim came out of a fund set aside especially for coastal residents who relied on subsistence hunting and fishing, using their catch to feed their families. The original oil spill settlement stipulated that subsistence claimants appear before administrators for in-person interviews before such claims were paid. But BP said Juneau waived that requirement after taking over as claims administrator when he installed Policy 160, which the company claim runs counter to the settlement agreement by allowing the claims administrator to decide whether field interviews with claimants are needed.
“[I]n express contradiction of the plain terms of the Settlement Agreement, Policy 160 remains in place, and the CADA (Court-Appointed Distribution Agent) does not interview each subsistence claimant as required under the terms of the Settlement Agreement,” the filing says.
In contrast, Steve Herman, a partner at Herman, Herman & Katz, said BP is wrongfully accusing Juneau of not proceeding properly when calculating subsistence claims.
“The Claims Administrator did not ‘relax’ the requirement; BP agreed that field visits would only be required for claims with a base amount of $10,000,” he said.
Champlain's claim was in the amount of $7,699.04.
Still, BP pointed out in its filing that the lack of an field interview, even for amounts under $10,000, opens up the door to fraud in the 2,500 other subsistence claims that fall below that amount.
"Without an interview requirement, the CSSP lacks any system to verify highly dubious subsistence claims," the filing says.
An examination of Champlain’s paperwork suggests that subsistence claimants have to provide very little documentation to support subsistence claims. In March 2013, for example, the claims center asked for copies of Champlin’s fishing licenses for blue crab and the other species he was claiming to have caught in addition to the shrimp. Gisleson, Champlin’s lawyer, said his client was exempt from providing those licenses, as the other species caught, including 6,500 pounds of oysters, were accidental landings, scooped up as bycatch while Champlin trawled for shrimp.
Subsistence claims appear to be of special interest to Louis Freeh, who was hired by the court more than a year ago to root out fraud in the BP settlement. In June, Freeh accused Alabama fisherman Jarrod A. Burrle of submitting a false claim in which he alleged to have hauled in some eight tons of seafood a month in the year leading up to the oil spill. That size of a haul seemed unlikely for a lone fisherman in a 16-foot boat, Freeh said, in a motion to claw back a $50,000 settlement Burrle received from Juneau’s claims facility.
Juneau did not respond to a request for comment on this story and BP declined to comment.