Louisiana official defends fish testing after oil spill

By Melinda Deslatte, Associated Press

A former Louisiana Cabinet official is fending off criticism about the way he managed a program to ensure seafood from the Gulf of Mexico was safe to eat after a massive oil spill in 2010.

 

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A former Louisiana Cabinet official is fending off criticism about the way he managed a program to ensure seafood from the Gulf of Mexico was safe to eat after a massive oil spill in 2010.

Robert Barham pushed back against auditors' suggestions the work was shoddy, saying in an interview with The Associated Press that he has no question the seafood was tested thoroughly after the spill, which was sparked by a broken rig and led to the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

"With absolutely no equivocation, I not only feel confident that everything we said was true, but that we did everything that we needed to do to ensure that it is safe," Barham said.

The Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office said it found insufficient sampling of fish, excessive spending and missing property in part of the $10.5 million BP-financed seafood safety program overseen by the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, when Barham was agency secretary.

State auditors found that Gulf oil spill recovery money intended for the fish testing instead paid for unnecessary iPads, cameras, boats and now-missing fishing equipment.

A preliminary draft of the auditor's report, which hasn't been released publicly but was obtained by the AP, described the fish testing program as so mismanaged that it couldn't determine if the seafood was safe from contamination.

Barham, who now oversees the Office of State Parks, said auditors inappropriately relied on the memorandum of understanding signed between the state and energy giant BP PLC, which paid for the program, to determine whether enough testing was done. The testing plans changed, he said, as it became clearer how the oil was moving after the spill.

"If we were not doing what BP wanted, don't you think they would have raised that issue?" Barham said. "It's ludicrous that they wouldn't have objected if they thought we were misspending."

But a document obtained by the AP through a public records request shows the energy company questioned boats bought for fish sampling work, boats the auditors also said seemed unnecessary.

A letter sent to Barham on Nov. 16, 2012, by a lawyer from BP cites concerns about the department's spending of testing program money on a third boat, saying the agency spent more than $987,000 above what was budgeted for equipment expenses. BP also noted Louisiana's seafood testing level was "less than what is outlined in the sampling plan."

"While we are encouraged that the state deems this level of sampling and testing sufficient to provide safety assurances, this level of sampling is inconsistent with the explanation provided by your office to justify the recent vessel purchase," BP attorney Marla Clark wrote.

A company representative didn't return a request for comment about the letter, and BP hasn't made any public comments regarding the draft audit report.

Barham said he doesn't remember the letter, but he said he doesn't recall any "substantial objection to what we were doing" from BP. He acknowledged some testing money was spent on items the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries wouldn't have purchased with its own money.

"Yes, we bought things that otherwise I'm certain we wouldn't have bought: big boats, equipment, other stuff. But this is 100 percent BP money. This is not a dime of taxpayer money," he said. "If we hadn't taken the money, it would have gone to other states."

Barham said the original agreement with BP anticipated the state receiving $18 million. He said the level of testing matches money received and the testing wrapped up because "we proved that the seafood was safe before we spent all the money." He said the state health department agreed with his agency's findings.

Barham was replaced as wildlife and fisheries secretary when Gov. John Bel Edwards took office in January and named Charlie Melancon to the position.

Beyond problems with the seafood safety program, auditors say they found widespread financial issues across the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries during Barham's tenure: questionable purchases, free-wheeling spending with little oversight and missing items that belong to the state.

"Were there mistakes? Did we not account for some things? I don't doubt that's true. But in the grand scheme of things, we left that department better than we got it," Barham said.

Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said a final version of the audit should be released publicly in November, likely with some changes from the draft report. State Inspector General Stephen Street, whose independent office probes suspected fraud and corruption in government, said his office has "an ongoing inquiry" into the wildlife and fisheries department.

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