ProPublica's Kim Barker joins the podcast this week to discuss her recent investigation, 'Spillionaires': Profiteering and Mismanagement in the Wake of the BP Oil Spill. The article examines how some people profited by charging BP outrageous rates for cleanup or by receiving claims money handed out in arbitrary ways while others, who arguably deserved more, somehow ended up with much less.
This lack of transparency and oversight put several Gulf families in a difficult position financially, especially the fishermen of Delacroix Island -- a declining community that has already dealt with Hurricane Katrina and witnessed their way of life slowly disappear. But Barker points out that this issue goes beyond money and also brings up crucial questions in regards to the cleanup itself.
"If BP is spending all this money for cleanup and we don't know exactly what is happening; if you've got people that are telling us, on the record, that all these boats are out there and they are involved in the cleanup, but then you are finding out that well they are not really doing anything, what happened with this cleanup? Is everything indeed clean? And I think that's definitely part of this story."
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Mike Webb: Hi. I'm Mike Webb and welcome to the ProPublica Podcast. As the one year anniversary of the Gulf Coast oil disaster approaches, we talk to Kim Barker who has two riveting pieces out about how different sets of people were affected by the oil spill.
Barker joined ProPublica last year and came to us after a fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations where she studied, wrote and lectured on Pakistan and Afghanistan and U.S. Policy. Before that, she was the South Asia Bureau Chief for the Chicago Tribune where she was based in New Delhi and Islamabad.
She has a new memoir out titled "The Taliban Shuffle" and we'll get to that a little later. Welcome to the podcast, Kim.
Kim Barker: Thanks for having me, Mike.
Mike: All right. Well, why don't we start with a brief summary of each story. Can you give us the gist of what Spillionaires was about?
Kim: Sure. Spillionaires was essentially about what happened along the coast after the BP oil spill and how some people profited from the spill in ways that weren't necessarily known at the time and sometimes people got money and they deserved it, sometimes people got money and it was no fault of their own, they just happened to be given a lot of money through the claims process.
Mike: Like hitting the Lotto.
Kim: Exactly. And in other cases, there was a deliberate attempt to try to get as much money as possible from BP through the cleanup.
Kim: Through price gouging essentially.
Mike: We'll come back to that. What about the second piece about Delacroix Island?
Kim: That was a story that was actually brought to ProPublica by a photographer who went down to the spill area right after it happened and she really wanted to follow the fishermen and follow this community that had been dying for a long time, to see how the spill would affect fishermen down there.
And you're talking about a community where generations have essentially lived off the land and off the water and the whole idea was to document what this was like for them and what it was like for them trying to pick up the pieces yet again after being hit by so many disasters in recent years.
Mike: And so for the Spillionaires piece, did you get a sense that people were deliberately trying to profit like, hey this horrible thing has happened, let's go get our money?
Kim: Oh some people most definitely were through the cleanup and sometimes you had folks that weren't even fishermen that were trying to get involved in the cleanup down there.
Mike: Like they didn't have boats or they...
Kim: Right. Some people went and bought boats and they saw, they basically said, hey this is our chance to get ours. And I actually had people say that to me. "We wanted a piece of the action too. Why shouldn't we get a piece of the action?" I would say, "Well you're not a fisherman?" They'd say, "So what? We were hurt by Hurricane Katrina."
I think everything sort of like melted together for some people down there and in terms of seeing that the community, in St. Bernard Parish at least, hadn't recovered yet fully from Hurricane Katrina. I mean you're talking about a place that had lost almost half of its population in the last five years, so very depressed and it hadn't yet fully come back. And I think some people just saw this as, hey this is our chance, let's get what we can while we can.
Mike: Yeah. Maybe some residual anger and they took advantage of that at that moment?
Kim: Or not even anger in some cases and some cases it's like they knew the drill. They knew how to take advantage of a situation and then some people had actually been involved in the cleanup back after Hurricane Katrina and they were also involved in this.
Mike: OK. Now you wrote about Craig Taffaro, what was your sense of him? Was he a savvy politician or was he...?
Kim: Oh, he is a very savvy politician.
Mike: How so?
Kim: I think Craig Taffaro is very intelligent. He's savvy. He likes control. He continually demonstrated that, in meaning to try to talk to him, you had to go through the spokespersons. He had two different spokespeople, both of them were women and they couldn't actually say anything without checking with him first.
I mean I think that's an indication of how much control he has and I think that the way he puts it is that after the spill happened, he wanted to be as much as involved in the cleanup and what happened afterwards as possible and he wanted as much money coming in there and going to folks in the community as possible. In talking to his critics, they would say, "Why is the Parish involved in oil spill cleanup? We don't know anything about oil spill cleanup."
Mike: Were other Parish presidents doing the same thing?
Kim: No, most certainly not to this extent. Other Parish presidents definitely declared an emergency because in Louisiana, there is a law that says a Parish president can declare a 30 day emergency in certain situations, which means they can suspend normal checks and balances of government. It essentially gives the executive branch carte blanche to do what it wants and to take what it wants in order to do something.
Mike: And it sounds like he took full advantage?
Kim: He did. Unlike in other places, he was able to name the lead cleanup company in St. Bernard Parish, a company that had no experience whatsoever cleaning up oil spills and a company that in fact had a fairly spotty record after Hurricane Katrina in terms of cleaning up after that particular disaster.
In a neighboring parish, they had been very involved in cleaning up debris and they had a contract to do that, but they were accused by many people of being a pass through company, merely in the middle of these tiers of subcontractors, carving off money and then passing on the work to people who got paid much less to actually do the work.
Mike: And did they all sort of give back to Craig at some point in some way?
Kim: You know, there was definitely campaign contributions that happened. There was a huge gala fundraising event in late September where everybody who was anybody involved in the cleanup and then the Parish came and donated money.
President Taffaro says that all of the donations were perfectly legal and they were under the limits required by Louisiana law and as far as I could find out, he is absolutely right. The Louisiana law allows a $2,500 limit per donator and it doesn't matter if you have all these different companies that are run by the same people. They can each donate $2,500.
Mike: Now can you put any hard numbers on the number of people who profited from this?
Kim: I can't put any hard numbers on this, no.
Mike: There is no real way to track?
Kim: I mean there is no and I think that's really a part of this story. How was the cleanup handled? Who did the cleanup?
All we know is that BP was in charge of spending for the cleanup and that the Coast Guard was in charge of overseeing that particular response. But in terms of getting any transparent accounting of how the money was spent, where it went, what companies were involved, what subcontractors were involved, we were only able to find out what we could find out by calling every individual government and asking them. And in some cases they said, we are not supposed to tell you that. You better go back to BP and the unified command and they will tell you. And then you'd call BP and they'd say, we really have no comment on that and we called the Coast Guard for almost four months until finally they got back to us this week, telling us that this was a very transparent operation because everybody involved in it knew exactly what was going on.
And I said, well what about the public? What about the public's right to know? And they said, oh no, well yeah, maybe you can find that out. Yes, you can if you file a FOIA and ask for these particular things, but to me that's a part of this story.
If BP is spending all this money for cleanup and we don't know exactly what is happening; if you've got people that are telling us, on the record, that all these boats are out there and they are involved in the cleanup, but then you are finding out that well they are not really doing anything, what happened with this cleanup? Is everything indeed clean? And I think that's definitely part of this story.
Mike: And BP was in a tricky position because they couldn't really make any kind of argument that, oh you are taking advantage of us?
Kim: Yeah, I mean because it's like, well I think the reaction of a lot of people is, who cares, I mean, BP is evil. That was the tendency I think a lot of people had and I think some people saw, hey let's just take everything we can because this company is at fault and they are the ones footing the bill. You don't even have taxpayers involved in this one.
Kim: And so there was really a tendency to get as much as you can again, but I do believe that BP is taking another look at its bills.
Mike: Okay. Now a reporter for New Orleans Gambit Weekly said the story was a blame the victims piece and he wrote that he was afraid the article would give people the impression that they could focus on those who profited and not on the tens to thousands of Gulf residents who couldn't make a living anymore and whose health may be at risk. How do you respond to that?
Kim: Well, I think he raises a valid point. I am not going to say that his fears are completely incorrect. I think you can see some traffic raising those very points. What I would say in response is, we make it very clear in these stories that there are little people involved here who didn't necessarily get as much as those with connections, that there are victims here and there just didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to how the claims money was handed out.
And as far as the cleanup money, I think we documented very clearly that it had everything to do with who you know, and it didn't have to do with how affected you were.
Mike: Right. And we did a whole series on the BP claim systems. Sasha Chavkin wrote about that for us, so.
Mike: How did you get started on this? What led you to start looking into it?
Kim: Well, originally I went down there. I am a former foreign correspondence, so I think that the thought was I could parachute into this place fairly easily and tell the narrative story about what had happened to the fishermen. And that was driven in large part by the photographer who had found a story about this dying community.
And I went down there and I just started hearing all these complaints about this particular company loop not paying its bills. And I also started hearing a lot of complaints about who was getting on and who was getting a boat on the cleanup and who wasn't getting a boat on the cleanup.
And there was obviously a money story down there, and folks down there were using terms like "BP Rich" and "Spillionaires" and everybody I talked to was using the same sort of language, yet I didn't ever see anybody else who had brought it all together in a story, in a compelling story at least.
Mike: Right. And just for the record, you got the term Spillionaires from down there, it's not something...?
Kim: Yes. Yeah, I didn't make it up.
Kim: I wish I could claim credit for it, but I can't.
Mike: And, why is this a ProPublica story?
Kim: I think it's a ProPublica story because we are talking about a larger systemic issue of how these cleanups are run. This is not going to be the last time that there is a large oil spill unfortunately. It's not going to be the last time that there is a major disaster in the Gulf.
And I just wanted to raise larger questions about how these things are handled to maybe prevent this sort of profiteering from happening in the future, and also to make sure that the folks that actually deserve the money, get the money.
Mike: Before we go Kim, I want to ask you about your new book, "The Taliban Shuffle."
Kim: It's true.
Mike: What's it about? How is it? What's the reaction to it?
Kim: The reaction has been incredibly gratifying. I have gotten a lot of great reviews including in the New York Times from a reviewer that people say is difficult to get praise and she was very effusive about the book. "The Taliban Shuffle" is my memoir. It's a combination of my time in Pakistan and Afghanistan and what happened for the five years I was there reporting for the Chicago Tribune, along with really what I feel like is a comprehensive overview of the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, everything that's happened there and it's also darkly funny, so it's an easy read.
Mike: All right, Kim. Thank you so much for joining us.
Kim: Thanks very much for having me.
Mike: That was Kim Barker. You can read both of her stories at ProPublica.org/spill. And now for our Officials Say The Darndest Things Tumblr Quote of the Week.
"Just because it wasn't streaming from the well any longer doesn't mean it wasn't approaching our shore. My work is very important. Perhaps one day you could follow me somewhere and learn what my work involves. I must be in contact at all times."
Who said it? Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolph, explaining to the AP why she bought an iPad on BP's dime a month after the well was capped. Randolph had said that she needed the iPad to communicate with her staff and other officials.
Okay. That does it for this week's show. Thanks to Minhee Cho for putting it all together. For ProPublica, I'm Mike Webb. We'll see you soon.
Transcription by CastingWords