NEW ORLEANS – Tasers. Brand-new SUVs. A top-of-the-line iPad. A fully loaded laptop. In the year since the Gulf oil spill, officials along the coast have gone on a spending spree with BP money, dropping tens of millions of dollars on gadgets and other gear – much of which had little to do with the cleanup, an Associated Press investigation shows.
The oil giant opened its checkbook while the crisis was still unfolding last spring and poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Gulf Coast communities with few strings attached.
In Ocean Springs, Miss., reserve police officers got Tasers. The sewer department in nearby Gulfport bought a $300,000 vacuum truck that never sucked up a drop of oil. Biloxi, Miss., bought 14 SUVs and pickup trucks. A parish president in Louisiana got herself a deluxe iPad, her spokesman a $3,100 laptop. And a county in Florida spent $560,000 on rock concerts to promote its oil-free beaches.
In every case, communities said the new, more powerful equipment was needed to deal at least indirectly with the spill.
In many instances, the connection between the spill and the expenditures was remote, and lots of money wound up in cities and towns little touched by the goo that washed up on shore, the AP found in records requested from more than 150 communities and dozens of interviews.
The April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers and spawned the nation’s worst offshore oil spill. As BP spent months trying to cap the well and contain the spill, cities and towns along the coast from Louisiana to Florida worried about the toll on their economies as well as the environmental impact.
All told, BP PLC says it has paid state and local governments more than $754 million as of March 31 and has reimbursed the federal government an additional $694 million.
BP set few conditions on how states could use the money, stating only that it should go toward mitigating the effects of the spill. The contracts require states to provide the company with at least an annual report on how the money has been used, BP spokeswoman Hejdi Feick said. But it’s unclear what consequences, if any, the states could face if they didn’t comply.
Some of the money BP doled out to states and municipalities hasn’t been spent yet, but the AP’s review accounts for more than $550 million of it. More than $400 million went toward clear needs like corralling the oil, propping up tourism and covering overtime.
William Walker, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, said it is clear now that communities bought more equipment than they wound up needing. But he doesn’t regret handing out money freely.
“At the time we were making these decisions, there were millions of gallons of oil going into the Gulf of Mexico with no clear idea when it would stop,” Walker said. “We didn’t have any extra time.”
Concerts, iPads and SUVs
Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolph billed BP for an iPad, saying she needed it in addition to her parish-paid Blackberry to communicate with staff and other officials during the crisis. But she didn’t buy the iPad until Aug. 26, a month and a half after the well was capped.
“Just because it wasn’t streaming from the well any longer doesn’t mean it wasn’t approaching our shore,” Randolph told the AP.
Biloxi, home to a strip of casinos overlooking the Mississippi Sound, bought 14 sport utility vehicles and pickups, two boats, two dump trucks and a backhoe loader with its $1.4 million share of BP grant money.
Mayor A.J. Holloway, who drove a city-owned 2006 GMC Yukon before the spill, now has one of the vehicles the city purchased with the BP grant – a black 2011 Chevy Tahoe 1500 LT that cost more than $35,000. The city’s public works director and chief engineer also are driving SUVs bought with BP money.
City spokesman Vincent Creel said the mayor has used it to travel to “countless meetings” about the spill and to gauge the city’s response with his own eyes.
Walker, the state official, said he didn’t know about the mayor’s use of the vehicle but doesn’t object.
Some Mississippi communities took a conservative approach in using their share of the money. Bay St. Louis received $382,461 to buy safety vests, street barricades, radios and other gear, but decided against buying a vacuum truck or other expensive equipment. City Clerk David Kolf said local officials trusted BP’s word it would handle all the cleanup, so they didn’t see a need to buy a “bunch of new toys.”
Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama each got an initial $25 million from BP, followed by an array of payments for tourism marketing, seafood monitoring and cleanup programs.
More than $300,000 went to Kenny Loggins, the Doobie Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd for rock shows to promote the state’s oil-free beaches; BP shelled out an additional $260,000 in concert-related costs.
In Alabama, the state Emergency Management Agency distributed $30 million to local governments without rejecting a single request.
Good PR for BP
When BP was under heavy attack from the top down for its response to the rapidly growing environmental disaster, cutting checks to governments along the coast addressed the issues, even if it meant waiting until later to figure out how officials would have to account for the cash.
“We recognized the importance of getting funding to the states, parishes and counties quickly, and therefore provided advance funding to help kick-start their emergency response,” BP spokeswoman Feick said in an email.
The payments to governments gave BP the kind of good PR it desperately needed, said Daniel Keeney, president of a Dallas-based public relations firm. By giving money to communities and allowing them to spend it largely as they saw fit, BP also put a buffer between itself and any questionable spending.
“Whether the funds could be perceived as being wasted or not really reflects on the organization accepting the money rather than BP,” Keeney said.
In February, BP asked Louisiana parishes that received up to $1 million in advance payments in May for a detailed summary of how that money has been spent. Parishes were warned they must exhaust the advance money before they can make any new claims.
Terrebonne Parish President Michel Claudet said he isn’t concerned that BP will try to recover unspent advance money.
“The agreement from the beginning was that it was nonrefundable,” he said.
Although BP footed the bill for pricey acquisitions, some officials concede they may have to use taxpayer money to maintain them.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries spent $5 million for 22 boats and the accompanying trawls, nets and hauling vehicles.
“Nobody asked me for a space shuttle or anything,” said Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham.
BP money will cover the costs of maintaining the vessels, leasing dock space and buying fuel for at least three years, he said. Whether taxpayers will be forced to pick up these costs after that hasn’t been decided.
“They don’t run for free,” Barham said.