Boat Owners Call BP's Cleanup Program a Corrupt Conspiracy

     MOBILE, Ala. (CN) - Nearly 100 Gulf Coast boat owners who let BP hire their ships for its "Vessels of Opportunity" oil spill cleanup say BP's program was a corrupt conspiracy that left "thousands of participants ... holding the bag for millions of dollars of unpaid services, equipment, materials, repairs and decontaminations" - and that BP intended it that way.
     The 94 individual plaintiffs say BP touted its Vessels of Opportunity (VoO) program for public relations purposes, but the program "was marred by mismanagement, corruption and broken promises," and that BP and its co-conspirators "intended to underpay VoO participants."
     Lead plaintiff Clyde Crawford says BP promised the plaintiffs $1,200 to $3,000 a day to use their boats during the cleanup.
     Crawford says the plaintiffs signed contracts promising to be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and that BP told them told several times that they would be paid their daily rate even on days they were not called to work.
     BP promised to pay for all repairs needed as the result of the work, and to pay for decontaminating the boats when their work was done, according to the 111-page complaint.
     But the fishermen say the whole Vessels of Opportunity program was a corrupt conspiracy.
     "[Defendants] BP, Parsons Corporation, Danos & Curole, HEPACO, U.S. Environmental Services and the individual defendants have engaged in an illegal and unlawful conspiracy to defraud plaintiffs and underpay plaintiffs for services, equipment, materials, repairs and decontaminations related to the VoO program and the oil spill response," the complaint states.
     "Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, BP established the VoO program as part of BP's response to the oil spill. Publicly, BP claimed that the VoO program would help clean up the Gulf Coast and would provide money to people affected by the oil spill. Once implemented, the VoO program was marred by mismanagement, corruption and broken promises. As a result, when the VoO program concluded, thousands of participants, including plaintiffs, were left holding the bag for millions of dollars of unpaid services, equipment, materials, repairs and decontaminations."
     The fishermen say that "to implement the VoO program, BP and the other defendants needed to mobilize thousands of vessels, captains and crew members in a very short period of time. However, many of the vessels, captains and crew members that needed to be mobilized, although idled by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, were entitled under applicable law to be reimbursed by BP for all of their lost income resulting from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. As a result, in order to effectively implement the VoO program, BP and the other defendants had to convince vessel owners, captains and crew members that they would receive more money through the VoO program than if they sat idle at the dock or pursued other employment or income opportunities."
     Throughout its campaign to get vessel owners to sign on to the VoO program, BP and the other defendants "represented, promised and warranted, among other things, that (a) VoO participants would be paid for standby time; (b) VoO participants would be fairly reimbursed for damage to their vessels that occurred while the vessels were in the VoO program; (c) VoO participants would be reimbursed for costs and expenses incurred as a result of the VoO program; (d) VoO participants' vessel would be decontaminated at BP's expense at the conclusion of the VoO program; and (e) the income that VoO participants receive through the VoO program would not offset the claims that VoO participants had against BP as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. BP knew these representations were false when they were made. Further, these false representations were part of and in furtherance of BP and the other defendants' unlawful and illegal conspiracy to defraud plaintiffs and to underpay plaintiffs for services, equipment, materials, repairs and decontaminations related to plaintiffs' participation in the VoO program," according to the complaint.
     The master vessel charter agreement that boat owners were required to sign "provides that (a) the charter begins when the vessel is activated; (b) after being activated, the vessel must be available and ready to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; and (c) the charter does not end until BP sends the vessel owner an 'off-hire dispatch notification' and the vessel is decontaminated," the complaint states.
     It adds: "The invoicing and payment program designed by BP and the other defendants for the VoO program was intentionally slow and inefficient. VoO participants were routinely told their paperwork and invoices were insufficient or had been lost. At times, it took weeks and months for VoO participants to be paid for services, equipment, material and repairs. When payment was finally received, it was difficult, if not impossible, for VoO participants to tell which invoices and services, equipment, materials and repairs the payment applied to.
     "This deliberately slow and confusing payment methodology was part of and in furtherance of BP and the other defendants' unlawful and illegal conspiracy to underpay VoO participants. In particular, BP and the other defendants used this intentionally slow and deceptive process to prevent VoO participants from discovering that BP and the other defendants intended to underpay VoO participants."
     Crawford claims that BP wanted to start phasing out the VoO program as early as July 2010, even as oil continued to gush from the broken well, but "determined it would be a public relations disaster" to send notice to thousands of VoO participants that their vessels were no longer needed.
     "Accordingly, as BP and the other defendants increased the number of VoO participants that were on standby, BP and the other defendants continued to represent to VoO participants that they were still in the VoO program and that they would be fully paid for services, equipment, materials, repairs and decontaminations related to plaintiffs' participation in the VoO program. These representations were in part of and in furtherance of BP and the other defendants' unlawful and illegal conspiracy to defraud and to underpay VoO participants.
     "In late July 2010, Tropical Storm Bonnie came ashore in Louisiana. Tropical Storm Bonnie provided BP and the other defendants with an opportunity to begin substantially phasing out the VoO program. Prior to Tropical Storm Bonnie's landfall, BP and the other defendants put virtually all participants in the VoO program on standby and began moving substantial amounts of VoO materials, equipment and assets out of the Gulf Region. BP and the other defendants represented, promised and warranted to the press, public and VoO participants that this demobilization was in preparation for Tropical Storm Bonnie, that the VoO program was not being phased out, and that VoO participants would be back out on the water in no time. The reality, however, was that BP and the other defendants did not want to deal with the public relations fallout of telling the VoO participants that the VoO program was being phased out.
     "After Tropical Storm Bonnie's landfall, the majority of VoO participants remained on standby and were not called back out on the water, as BP and the other defendants had represented. In late August 2010, with the Macondo well capped, BP began sending official 'off-hire dispatch notifications' to VoO participants. Following notification of being off-hire, plaintiffs attempted to have their vessels decontaminated, only to be put off for weeks or months by BP and the other defendants. Since that time, BP and the other defendants have refused to pay VoO participants for services, equipment, materials, repairs and decontaminations related to plaintiffs' participation in the VoO program," according to the complaint.
     BP did not immediately return a request for comment.
     The complaint lists 23 named defendants, including BP, its support companies and individually named staff, and 100 "fictitious defendants" who allegedly participated in the conspiracy to defraud the plaintiffs.
     The plaintiffs seek punitive damages for conspiracy, breach of contract, fraudulent misrepresentation, and fraudulent misrepresentation.
     Lead counsel for the plaintiffs is George Finkbohner III with Cunningham Bounds in Mobile. Also of counsel are David Bagwell of Fairhope, and Sam Crosby of Daphne.