On the Gulf of Mexico, fake fishermen hustle BP payback

Fishing grounds closed – 2200 extra licenses sold – uh, huh

BP has paid out more than $308m in compensation to individuals and businesses since the oil spill, but fishermen and Gulf of Mexico officials fear some of that money might have gone to fraudsters.

Oysterman Pete Vujnovich has been out of work for the past several months. He spends most of his days tidying his boat – the Captain Pete – waiting for the waters around his home in Barataria Bay to reopen to fishing.

A couple months ago, he says, two men he had never seen before approached him near his boat and asked him to sign a paper saying they had worked for him – so they could claim BP compensation.

“Of course,” he says. “I didn’t sign.” Mr Vujnovich says he has heard of other fraud attempts. “Some of the other boat captains have been offered a thousand dollars to sign a piece of paper vouching for other people,” he says.

In order to claim compensation from BP, fishermen must prove they hold a commercial fishing license. The only place to get one in Louisiana is the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) in Baton Rouge.

Since the oil spill, roughly 2,200 more commercial licences have been sold than in the same period last year, despite many fishing grounds being closed.

No – I’m not surprised.

Lt Col Jeff Mayne of the LDWF Law Enforcement Division says some of those licences may have been used to commit fraud.

Originally BP was paying cheques to just anybody who had a licence and that may have spurred some of the fraud,” he says. “There were no real checks and balances on whether they were they really commercial fishermen.”

In the past week, LDWF made its first three arrests in relation to fraudulent oil spill compensation claims…

BP has a special unit currently investigating several hundred cases of possible fraud. Adjusters in claims centres around Louisiana have also been warned to be on the lookout…

Oysterman Pete Vujnovich says, “At the heart of this industry is a core of really good people, and we don’t want that reputation tarnished.”

I wish I could say the same about Louisiana politicians – right down to the level of parish pundits who get on TV every chance they can to blather about how no one is trying hard enough to solve whatever it is they’re whining about this week – to get re-elected this Fall.

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