Two Mississippi women — a state agency director and a private contractor — called the shots in the aftermath of the largest oil spill in the nation’s history, drawing the scrutiny of the FBI.
Before the state reached a final settlement with BP, the company responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster of April 2010, both women left their respective positions with the agency leading the efforts, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.
In the three years since Director Trudy Fisher's resignation, federal investigators have looked into DEQ’s activities under her leadership. The probe looks at contracts granted by DEQ in an attempt to determine whether Fisher personally benefited from them, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the investigation, including several people who have been interviewed by the FBI.
Under Fisher, private contractor and attorney Amy Whitten reaped nearly $2 million in DEQ contracts, either directly with the agency or through subcontracts with law firm Balch & Bingham. Whitten, a well-known state contractor, had worked with a number of agencies and secured four previous DEQ contracts before Fisher took over the agency.
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The first during Fisher’s tenure was a $375,700 contract to The Whitten Group for staff training services. Former DEQ Director Charles Chisolm granted the contract, but Fisher signed it when she took office in January 2007.
The agency awarded and extended many of Whitten’s contracts as millions began flowing into the state from BP following the oil spill. Early BP payments and the following settlement will ultimately result in nearly $2.2 billion for Mississippi, much of which will be paid out over the next 15 years.
Fisher, 57, and Whitten, 63, headed initial damage assessment efforts in Mississippi, Fisher as the federal representative for the state and Whitten as the alternate.
Neither returned multiple calls to The Clarion-Ledger for this story.
In keeping with FBI policy, a spokesperson from the bureau’s Jackson office would not confirm or deny whether the matter is under investigation.
Fisher announced her resignation in May 2014. This came just one week after her agency’s wholesale redaction of public records came under fire during a Hinds County Chancery Court hearing. DEQ blacked out hundreds of pages of Balch & Bingham and Whitten invoices totaling roughly $6 million.
Purchases included first-class airfare for Fisher and Whitten at $1,774 per ticket in July 2012, as detailed on an invoice from Whitten to Balch & Bingham. The exact date, reason for and destination of their trip was not included.
Balch & Bingham attorney Teri Wyly, who led the firm’s DEQ contract, said last week that she remembers taking two trips with Whitten and Fisher that July — one to San Antonio for a meeting with other state restoration leaders and one to Atlanta to meet with BP representatives. It was the first possible explanation given for the travel in three years of inquiries.
Political and research consultant Michael Rejebian, working for an undisclosed client, requested the DEQ records as part of a larger request that included thousands of pages of invoices, contracts and procurement records from various state agencies. Rejebian sued over DEQ’s redactions on invoices from the Balch firm and Whitten.
During a May 2014 hearing, attorneys for Rejebian pointed out that the Mississippi Development Authority provided him with the same kind of invoices without redactions. Those invoices also had been submitted by Balch & Bingham.
But DEQ attorneys argued the redactions were protected by attorney-client privilege. They even speculated Rejebian could have been working for BP, against which the agency anticipated taking legal action.
Hinds County Chancery Judge Denise Owens initially ordered defendants to produce unredacted statements from The Whitten Group in December 2014. Then, in March 2015, Owens reversed herself on a motion to reconsider, saying the documents constituted attorney work product and would remain redacted.
Though he requested records explaining how the Balch firm selected Whitten for the subcontract, Rejebian said he never received documentation supporting the decision.
Rejebian’s client remains confidential, but he released a written statement when asked in June why he started pursuing the records related to the oil spill:
“The BP settlement represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Mississippi to make real and lasting differences for generations to come,” Rejebian said in the statement. “So it’s incumbent upon the stewards of these funds to ensure it’s being spent in a completely transparent manner. When you’re dealing with such large amounts of money, misappropriation is always an issue that must be watched carefully. Hopefully, the taxpayers aren’t being shortchanged.”
‘Mainly working with Trudy’Wyly said her firm hired Whitten, whom Balch & Bingham knew well, for her negotiation and mediation skills. She was instrumental to the state’s case against BP, Wyly said.
Whitten’s subcontract details consulting, community engagement and organizing responsibilities for the agency as a result of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
In an interview with The Clarion-Ledger in February, former DEQ Director of Administration Keith Harkins said Whitten’s role with the agency after the BP crisis was “mainly working directly with Trudy” in “assisting with some of the logistical issues.”
Attorneys were needed prior to the settlement to assess the damage and prepare for a case against BP. Whitten spent time on the Coast with DEQ officials after the oil spill.
“I knew that she was on the scene a good bit of the time working with local officials,” Harkins said.