In Gulf of Mexico, 'fake fishermen' angle for BP pay

By Robyn Bresnahan
BBC News, Louisiana

Image caption,
Lt Col Mayne says more fishing licences were sold this year than last

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.

First arrests

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.

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 to 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.

Image caption,
Charles Robin III and George Barisich worry fraudsters will take money meant for real fishermen

"I would like to say I'm surprised, but I'm not," says Col Mayne. "It's a lot easier to go and steal a resource than to rob a bank. I think we'll be working items associated with this oil spill for years to come."

BP investigating

So has BP been too quick to hand out money?

"There will likely be some fraudsters who made it through the initial process and received dollars," says Allen Carpenter, one of BP's regional managers in charge of the 14 claims centres in the Louisiana.

But he says the company has tightened up the claims process.

"It's the verification we're going to go through and the special handling of those claims as they move forward in which those individuals are going to be caught," he says.

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.

But Mr Carpenter said some degree of fraud is inevitable. He investigated fraud cases after Hurricane Katrina, when fraud cost authorities billions of dollars.

Image caption,
Oysterman Pete Vujnovich says strangers posing as fishermen have asked him to vouch for them

"Probably about 10% of the claims filed after any major event can be looked at as fraudulent or potentially fraudulent," he says.

"It brings out the unscrupulous people who see it as an opportunity to take advantage of the goodwill of others."

Tainted reputation

At the end of a sweltering day in the small fishing village of Bayou La Loutre, shrimpers George Barisich and Charles Robin III discuss the issue worrying legitimate fishermen all over Louisiana.

"Every cent these fraudsters get is money that's being taken away from me," says Mr Barisich.

Robin agrees: "That's what you call playing the system. It makes me mad, because we are such hard-working people, we don't even know how to play the system."

Back on his boat, Mr Vujnovich takes a long drag on his cigarette as the sun begins to set. He says it's crucial that dishonest people are caught.

"If you don't catch them and somebody isn't held accountable, it will keep happening," he says.

"At the heart of this industry is a core of really good people, and we don't want that reputation tarnished."