A state lawmaker from Assumption Parish is the newest chairman of a legislative committee created to investigate the claims process associated with last year's Gulf oil disaster. State Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, said the Select Committee on Oversight of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility will probably meet for the first time over the next week or so.
"I think our first big gathering may even be in Terrebonne Parish," Harrison said. "Right now we're looking at a three-judge panel that would issue summary judgments based on claims so we can make some kind of informed demand of BP."
Harrison replaces Rep. Walter Leger III, D-New Orleans, who stepped down from the position recently because of a conflict of interest created by the law firm where he is employed. His law partner and father, attorney Walter Leger Jr., has been retained by St. Tammany, St. Bernard and Lafourche parishes to handle potential oil disaster litigation. Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco named the senior Leger to the now-defunct Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) after Hurricane Katrina — before his son ran for the state House. Leger Jr. was reappointed to the LRA board by Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Harrison said Rep. Pat Connick, R-Marrero, also had to relinquish his post on the select committee for similar reasons.
Four months after the April 2010 explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed 11 people, the Gulf Coast Claims Facility was created. It is now overseen by claims chief Kenneth Feinberg, who developed the post-9/11 fund. Since that time, the facility has received about 851,000 claims from more than 500,000 individuals and businesses. More than $3.8 billion in emergency payments have been doled out, including $1.3 billion in Louisiana. However, the fund was created with a $20 billion revenue stream from BP, meaning most of the money is sitting unused.
State Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, a member of the legislative oversight committee, said similar committees in other Gulf states have been meeting for months, but Louisiana's panel has yet to meet. Once it does get under way, he predicted, the plights of commercial fishermen will pose the most significant challenges. "There are people who do very good work and live viable lives, but don't maintain records traditionally like other people do," Morrell said. "So that has caused some hardships in proving what those damages were."
According to House and Senate rules, the oversight committee will review "problems relating to claims filed by both individuals and businesses, examination of the appeals process for denial of claims, overseeing the protection of our citizens, our businesses and our state, and taking action necessary to ensure a systematic and fair process for claims payments." — Jeremy Alford