Audit: Louisiana misspent oil funds

BATON ROUGE -- Gulf oil-spill recovery money intended for testing to ensure fish caught off Louisiana were safe for consumers instead paid for unnecessary iPads, cameras, boats and now-missing fishing equipment, state auditors said, calling the safety program so mismanaged it couldn't even declare if the catch was fit to eat.

Energy giant BP PLC gave Louisiana millions of dollars for the program aimed at restoring confidence in the state's multibillion-dollar seafood industry after an oil spill fouled the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. But auditors said they believe hundreds of thousands of dollars were misspent.

The Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office found "insufficient sampling of fish for contamination from the oil spill, excessive costs and missing property" in part of the $10.5 million BP-financed seafood safety program overseen by the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in the years after the spill.

A preliminary draft of the auditor's report hasn't been released publicly.

Beyond problems with the seafood safety program, the auditors say they found widespread financial issues across the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries: questionable purchases, free-wheeling spending with little oversight and missing fishing equipment, drones, guns and other items that belong to the state. And it said the department's management and employees may have violated the agency contract with BP "and state law" in the fish testing program.

"Overall, our procedures identified a lack of management oversight over [wildlife department] funds and operations," Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera's office says in the draft report, which notes the findings are subject to further review and revision.

Purpera said Wednesday that the draft was being circulated for responses from agency officials. Changes could be made before the public release of the audit within the next two weeks, he said.

The audit report scrutinized agency management from 2010 through 2015 when Bobby Jindal was Louisiana's governor and Robert Barham was wildlife and fisheries secretary. In January, John Bel Edwards succeeded Jindal as governor, naming Charlie Melancon as the department's secretary.

Barham said he's seen the draft report and has been given until the end of next week to respond. He disputed some assertions made by the auditor's office, but said he couldn't yet provide specifics because of confidentiality rules involving draft audits.

"There are some factual errors in the audit findings, and we believe some conclusions are erroneous," Barham said in a telephone interview.

Melancon sent letters in July to both Purpera and the district attorney in Baton Rouge saying he believes "there may have been misappropriation of public funds or assets by the previous administration of this agency."

State Inspector General Stephen Street, whose independent office investigations suspected fraud and corruption in government, confirmed he also has "an ongoing inquiry" into the department, but said he can't discuss it further.

A Section on 09/23/2016