Did '60 Minutes' whitewash the Deepwater Horizon oil spill?

How "60 Minutes" whitewashed the gulf oil spill

BP, the perpetrator of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, has been working assiduously over the last year to wriggle out from under a financial settlement it reached for gulf businesses harmed by the disaster. 

As we reported back in February, the oil giant has rolled its big guns into federal courthouses, placed ads in major newspapers, and snagged a hugely sympathetic article in BusinessWeek.

But Sunday it landed its biggest fish of all: "60 Minutes," which broadcast a lengthy segment parroting the company's complaints that the settlement deal it agreed to in 2010 has allowed many businesses in the gulf states to pocket settlement checks based on fraudulent claims. The segment was titled "Over a Barrel." (Get it?)

There was a time, years ago, when an investigation by "60 Minutes" meant that the program had delved deeply into claims by a huge oil company that it was being defrauded by a passel of local businesses, done its own research and come to its own conclusions, viewing Big Business' claims with a gimlet eye.

Today's "60 Minutes" seems more inclined to view the little guy as a born scammer. That was the thrust of its disgraceful attack in October on the Social Security disability program, which it painted as a con game for layabouts. The report aired without a single interview with an actual disability victim or advocate, which may be why it got the facts so shamefully wrong.

To its credit, Sunday's program about BP's profound suffering at the hands of "Gulf Coast swindlers" did include a few snippets setting forth the other side. It acknowledged that BP has brought its complaints about the settlement process to federal district court and a federal appeals court (twice), and that its complaints have been tossed out every time.

The show reported, albeit rather murkily, that the company had agreed to a simplified, expedited claims process for businesses so it could avoid years of litigating and scrutinizing every claim -- something that might cost it more than allowing a few debatable or even unworthy claims to slip through. But those points seemed to be included chiefly to give the entire report a veneer of objectivity. 

"60 Minutes" and its reporter, Scott Pelley, didn't explain that the potential for such occurrences had been specifically raised in court by the settlement administrator, and the company explicitly accepted that outcome as the price of efficiently managing what were sure to be hundreds of thousands of individual claims.

Pelley wore an expression of solicitous dismay at every assertion by BP's front man, an executive named Geoff Morrell, about fraudulent business claimants. But he didn't report that the particular cases mentioned by Morrell are the same handful that BP has been trotting out for months in its ads and its publicity sheets. That raises the question of how many cases of amazing fraud there really are. He mentioned that "60 Minutes" called "more than a dozen" supposedly fraudulent claimants, but none agreed to go on camera.

Really? BP claims there are "more than a thousand" such claims, and "60 Minutes" tried to verify about a dozen? This evidence of pure reportorial laziness didn't stop Pelley from speculating that the claimants refused to be interviewed "because they're feeling sort of sheepish about receiving that check."

Pelley didn't dig too deeply into the hard numbers on the claims program, so here they are. As of today, Settlement Administrator Patrick Juneau has received 288,832 claims. He has approved 68,900 for payments totaling $5 billion. He has denied 54,215. Most of the rest are pending, incomplete or withdrawn. 

Pelley didn't mention that the claims process has an appeals provision, which BP has bothered to exercise in only 3,943 cases, or less than 6% of all approved claims. If the company really felt inundated by bad claims, wouldn't it be challenging a lot more of them?

What BP is really up to is PR, though to what end isn't really clear. After our first report on its efforts appeared in February, the company issued a statement entitled "Setting the Record Straight with the Los Angeles Times." The statement tried the old device of blaming plaintiffs' lawyers for the claims chicanery, apparently on the grounds that corporate lawyers are invariably angels.

"Many lawyers are taking up to 25% of the compensation their clients are awarded," it said, implying that these clients would be much better off it they weren't represented in the claims process by attorneys (unlike, say, BP). 

It's a sure bet that following Sunday's broadcast, BP didn't feel the need to "set the record straight" with "60 Minutes." The program did the company's work quite adequately, to its enduring shame.




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