Over the past year, BP's office of the ombudsman has been presented with dozens of safety concerns and evidence that would appear to support claims of widespread retaliation against employees who work for Acuren, one of the beleaguered oil company's contractors on Alaska's North Slope.
But the watchdog has failed to investigate the allegations and in some instances has prematurely closed cases without conducting a thorough probe, a three-month investigation by Truthout has found.
Additionally, employees who raised issues about safety and retaliation have singled out BP's deputy ombudsman, Billie Garde, accusing her of breaching their confidentiality by sharing sensitive documents and disclosing other closely-guarded information with executives at BP and Acuren that identified the employees who leveled the charges. Acuren is a firm that specializes in inspecting gas lines and pipelines for corrosion.
Former BP North America President Bob Malone set up the ombudsman’s office in the aftermath of a March 2006 oil spill on the North Slope amid revelations that surfaced during a congressional investigation that the company retaliated against employees who raised red flags about the safety and integrity of the company’s Prudhoe Bay operations and at the company's Texas City refinery where 15 employees were killed and 170 others were injured in an explosion in March 2005.
Garde, an attorney who has represented whistleblowers in the oil and gas industry for decades, refused repeated requests to comment for this story.
Two weeks ago, Garde traveled to Alaska to meet with Acuren employees in an attempt to win back their trust. But several employees who attended the meetings said Garde has “no credibility” and their feelings about her and the ombudsman's office in general has not changed.
“I just can't trust her or the ombudsman's office at this point,” said one Acuren employee, who, like other employees interviewed by Truthout, requested anonymity because he fears he could lose his job for speaking publicly. “She still hasn't put her words into action. She has not responded to my emails. She has not provided me with a status update about my case and until these issues are resolved I won't look to [the ombudsman's office] as a place where I can get help.”
Steve Rinehart, a spokesman for BP Exploration Alaska, said in an interview that the company “is aware that a number of Acuren employees working on BP Alaska projects have presented workplace concerns to the ombudsman's office.”
“In order to protect the workers' privacy, we won't discuss the cases publicly,” Rinehart said. “However, each and every one of these concerns has either been investigated, is currently being investigated or will be investigated. Some concerns take longer than others to investigate and resolve. Those considered more urgent are handled earlier than others. BP and the ombudsman's office have communicated an expectation that Acuren strengthen its employee concerns process, to ensure that employees can bring concerns forward without fear of retaliation.”
Rinehart said he could not disclose the financial terms of the ombudsman's contract.
“Commercial terms and condition of all third-party contracts are confidential,” he said.
Truthout was contacted by dozens of employees who work for BP Exploration Alaska and Acuren in late June after we published an exclusive report that centered on a letter signed by BP ombudsman Stanley Sporkin, the retired federal court judge and ex-general counsel of the CIA during the Iran-Contra years.
The February 3 letter prepared for BP Exploration Alaska President John Minge and and the House Energy and Commerce Committee touted the success of the ombudsman program in resolving employee concerns and cited one particular case involving an Acuren employee as an example.
The letter claimed the ombudsman's office intervened in a high-level safety concern presented to the watchdog by a “concerned individual” during the summer of 2008 involving a high pressure natural gas line that needed to be cleaned due to corrosion build up, but was being delayed for unknown reasons. The letter claimed that only when the ombudsman's office stepped in to address the matter and worked closely with BP Exploration Alaska management was the corrosion issue resolved.
“This is an example of the value from our intervention activities,” the letter stated.
But the letter grossly misrepresented the true nature of the events involving this incident. For one, the “concerned individual” who the letter claims contacted the ombudsman's office in 2008 was fired in 2007.
As Truthout previously reported, the issue first surfaced in late 2005, a year before the ombudsman's office was established, when Stuart Sneed, a pipeline safety technician, contacted Paul Flaherty, an environmental investigator who, since 2002, has provided BP Exploration Alaska employees and its contractors a confidential avenue to raise concerns.
In an interview in June, Flaherty said he confirmed Sneed's account and found that a large number of “ultrasonic external corrosion inspections” indicated the integrity of the line at issue was a major concern that needed immediate attention.
Acuren management retaliated against Sneed for taking complaints directly to Flaherty and to BP Exploration Alaska officials. He waged an unsuccessful and costly legal battle against Acuren to get his job back after he was fired from the company for a bogus safety violation. In an interview in June, Flaherty said Sneed was subsequently “blacklisted” within the oil and gas industry, and has been “without a job since 2007 because of his willingness to raise integrity and safety issues.”
Garde, who prior to the inception of the ombudsman's office had accepted contract work from BP and other Alaska oil and gas company's dealing with employee concerns, worked with Flaherty on an investigation into Sneed's claims of retaliation and allegations that technicians falsified inspection data reports, which they both substantiated, according to a report jointly written by Garde and Flaherty in 2006.
Senior BP Exploration Alaska officials, who work closely with the ombudsman's office, told Truthout that the letter Sporkin signed in February was actually prepared by Garde and that she bears the burden for misstating the facts pertaining to the corrosion issue cited in the document. These officials added that it's well known within BP and Acuren that Sporkin is simply a “figurehead,” and Garde handles most of the ombudsman's office's work.
The BP ombudsman's website says Garde “has been instrumental in establishing the Ombudsman Program for BP America and ensuring the program's success.”
The letter signed by Sporkin also noted that “contractor retaliation complaints” continue to be “the biggest single category of concerns that our office receives.” Half of the more than 200 complaints the office has received originated from employees who work for BP Exploration Alaska.
“We have made specific recommendations regarding the need to tackle this issue on a programmatic basis,” the letter states. “We are now in discussions with [BP Exploration Alaska] and BP America, Inc. to address these issues.”
But Acuren employees who filed safety and retaliation complaints said they have not seen any progress. They said the ombudsman’s office, and Garde specifically, have allowed their concerns to languish for months and the representatives in the office have not returned employees’ phone calls and emails inquiring about the status of their cases.
“I’m aware that the ombudsman’s office has a stack of at least 18 legitimate concerns that they aren’t doing anything about,” one Acuren employee said.
The ombudsman's office places employee concerns into three categories: level 1 represents “system integrity or safety issues” and is the most serious; issues that could impact safety are classified as level 2, and human resources issues are identified as level 3.
Documents obtained by Truthout show that several employee concerns that allegedly has not been acted on are level 1 “process safety” issues.
Fritz Gunther, a turbine technician who works for BP Exploration Alaska and is a member of the United Steelworkers union local 4959, said he too has had problems with getting the ombudsman’s office to respond to his concerns in a timely manner.
“I filed a complaint with the ombudsman’s office three to four weeks ago over [alleged] violations of the [Americans with Disabilities Act] and [BP’s internal] anti-discrimination policy and an investigator was supposed to call me back,” Gunther said in an interview last week. “I never heard from them so after three weeks I called the office again and gave them hell. The gal finally did file my concern and gave me a case number. But I haven’t heard back since then. Our union has also filed a grievance to that affect on September 23.”
Some of these Acuren employees said they have sought outside legal advice, but they have not taken their complaints to any federal or state agency.
Other employees said Garde has only recently taken steps to address a few of the cases after Flaherty, who has worked closely with the ombudsman’s office since 2008, abruptly ended his association with the watchdog, reportedly due to its failure to investigate the concerns and take appropriate action. Flaherty had told Sporkin and Garde in March that they should advise BP Exploration Alaska to terminate its contract with Acuren, according to employees he spoke with and other individuals close to Flaherty.
“I am ending my involvement with the [Office of Ombudsman],” Flaherty wrote in an August 29 email obtained by Truthout that was sent to Garde, Sporkin, Minge and other BP Exploration Alaska officials. “I have significant differences with both senior BP [management] and several people within the [Office of Ombudsman] on the basic elements of an employee concerns program and leadership on several necessary corrective actions. I believe these programs require complete independence to protect worker identities and mutual trust…I am not happy that I have to make this decision, but I cannot ignore the reality of what has transpired over the last 9 months – I will leave it at that in this note.”
Flaherty declined to comment when contacted about his email and the allegations by Acuren employees that their concerns were not addressed. Rinehart, the BP spokesman, also declined to comment on Flaherty’s email.
Acuren employees said Flaherty was the only person who had tried to get their concerns addressed. They added that Flaherty had told them another reason he decided to part ways with the ombudsman’s office was due to widespread allegations that Garde is untrustworthy and jeopardized the jobs of many employees by turning over a spreadsheet her office prepared to BP Exploration Alaska officials and Dennis Lee, the head of Acuren’s Alaska operations, that contained every Acuren employees’ concern dating back to 2007.
Lee used the spreadsheet to identify the employees who complained to the ombudsman’s office about safety and integrity issues and alleged they were harassed and retaliated against for speaking out.
The spreadsheet also contained names of some Acuren employees. Lee read from the spreadsheet during meetings with employees in recent months and stated that he knew who the anonymous employees were and their charges were false, Acuren employees who were present at the meeting said.
Corrosion Data Manipulation
A copy of the spreadsheet was shown to Truthout. It states that employees have complained to the ombudsman’s office about harassment, intimidation, retaliation, racial discrimination, inadequate training, exposure to radiation, falsifying records, the mishandling of equipment and, perhaps the most serious charge, the manipulation of corrosion monitoring data.
Acuren employees said individuals who disclosed to the ombudsman’s office that corrosion monitoring data was being manipulated were subjected to the worst harassment and retaliation. At least one employee was demoted and he and others had letters of reprimand stuffed into their personnel file, a precursor to termination that falsely accused them of a wide-range of violations.
When pipelines and gas lines are inspected and corrosion is discovered that may require BP to make repairs, the information that is entered into a database is later altered in such a way so as to appear favorable to the BP and Acuren management team, employees said.
“The data determines whether repairs need to be done, but some technicians are being pressured to change the data after inspections,” one Acuren employee said. “A simple query in the database, however, could expose how the [corrosion] data that was originally entered was replaced that either shows no [corrosion] build up or minimal build up. This is a major safety issue and several BP managers are well aware it is happening.”
Severe corrosion was the catalyst behind the March 2006 pipeline rupture that spilled more than 200,000 gallons of oil across two acres of frozen tundra – the second largest spill in Alaska's history – which went undetected for nearly a week.
Some of the concerns, if substantiated, said two senior BP officials familiar with the complaints, could put the lives of employees at risk and lead to a catastrophic event at BP’s North Slope oil facilities if they are not immediately addressed.
The spreadsheet shared with Lee also indicates that some of the concerns brought to the attention of the ombudsman’s have not yet been addressed.
Flaherty told Garde, according to several employees who spoke with him, that they suspected her of leaking the spreadsheet to Lee, that they did not trust her and believed she is too close to BP Exploration Alaska officials and Acuren management.
Garde responded by writing a letter dated July 9 that Acuren mailed to the homes of all of its employees explaining how information from employees is treated by the ombudsman’s office. Acuren sent the letter to the homes of all of its employees, accompanied by a notice urging them to read it.
“It has recently come to the attention of the BP Office of the Ombudsman that concerns have surfaced surrounding a potential breach of confidentiality within our office,” Garde wrote. “This potential breach is alleged to involve Acuren employee concerns…When a Concerned Individual (CI) contacts the Office of the Ombudsman to raise a concern, they have the option of doing so anonymously. If a CI identifies themselves, they may request the Office maintain their confidentiality, i.e. not divulge their identity or any information, which could compromise the CI’s identity. Our office takes this commitment very seriously, and works to protect the identity of the confidential CI’s during every step of the concern resolution process. Any actions taken by the Office of the Ombudsman that could potentially identify a confidential CI will first be reviewed with the CI. As a practical matter, the process of raising concerns internally and then bringing those same issues to the Office can result in situations in which may [sic] guess who the CI is. We will not confirm or deny any speculations; and any actions by anyone to confirm identities of who has contacted our office would not be appropriate.”
An Acuren employee said Garde’s letter was a “clear attempt to cover her own ass for disclosing confidential information to the retaliator.”
“We were told specifically by Billie Garde that any complaints we file will be 100 percent confidential,” the employee said. “Some of us who made our concerns known were confronted with information from management that only she knew.”
Garde conducted an “investigation” into the employees’ charges, which essentially amounted to investigating herself, people close to the Ombudsmen’s office said, and concluded the allegations had no merit.
Jeanne Pascal, the Environmental Protection Agency’s former debarment counsel who spent a decade working on BP-related issues, said she understands why employees don’t trust Garde.
“She leaked information I gave to the Office of Ombudsman during my [debarment] negotiations with BP,” Pascal said in an interview. “No [BP Exploration Alaska] contract employee who talked to me about BP in Alaska ever said that they trusted Billie Garde. In fact, every employee I worked with said they did not trust her. Although I was not always certain why, their lack of trust made me very cautious around her. I think that the Office of Ombudsman should remain a mandatory outside function, and that retaliatory mangers in BP [Exploration Alaska] and its contractors should be replaced.”
Pascal had previously told Truthout that BP's primary goal in negotiations with EPA in February on a settlement related to debarment was to get rid of the ombudsman’s office and replace it with a BP employee. Pascal said BP wanted to control the outcome and information being divulged to the government, which she “adamantly” opposed and said she “continues to oppose.”
Her support for the ombudsman’s office began to wane when she learned that Flaherty was no longer working with the watchdog.
On September 9, Pascal sent an email to Sporkin stating that her “support has always been based on the integrity, objectivity and professionalism of [Sporkin] and Paul Flaherty.”
“Mr. Flaherty has sterling ethics, and I have confirmed this over and over again by my personal experience with him over many, many years,” Pascal wrote. “I continue to support you, but I do not support your office given the current circumstances and the close interaction and direction your office is under from BP management. Although I trust some BP managers, those people are not in positions of power at the moment. Unfortunately, you are not now conducting investigations on the slope in person; therefore your knowledge about facts and circumstances is not first hand. I am concerned about the accuracy of the information you are getting. Mr. Flaherty's resignation should speak volumes to you on this topic.”
Gunther, the BP Exploration Alaska turbine technician, said, “the ombudsman’s Office has value as long as Ms. Garde is not associated with them.”
“I had voiced a concern with Ms. Garde during a strike when she was [on the North Slope years ago] and 10 minutes later I got a visit from Florian Borokowski, [BP’s former human resources manager] telling me the company is well aware of my concerns,” Gunther said. “It was so glaringly obvious that Ms. Garde ratted me out to [human resources].”
Allegations by Acuren and BP Exploration Alaska employees that Garde had acted unethically mirrors similar claims leveled by one of her former clients, Joseph Tracanna. Tracanna, a whistleblower, had filed an ethics complaint against Garde with the Washington, DC State Bar for which she received an informal letter of admonishment in October 2003 for conduct that “reflected a disregard of certain ethical standards” related to allegations that she represented the interests of Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, operator of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), which is majority owned by BP, rather than Tracanna’s interests.
Scott West, the former special agent-in-charge of the EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division who spent more than a year investigating the March 2006 oil spill said BP Exploration Alaska employees he has been in contact with have always been “leery of the ombudsman’s office because they believed it was controlled by BP and not truly an independent outfit.”
“Employees I spoke with specifically cited Billie Garde as someone they wouldn’t deal with because she has worked for BP in various capacities over the years,” said West, who is now head of investigations for environmental group Sea Shepherd. “They see her as being too close to BP management.”
The criticism of Garde and the ombudsman’s office in general, however, may become a moot point come next June when the watchdog’s contract expires. BP recently announced that it intended to step up its internal employee concerns program.
Rinehart said the company has “extended the ombudsman’s contract twice since inception in 2006. It is currently running until June 2011. At this point we have not made a decision about extending.”
Gunther, the BP Exploration Alaska turbine technician, said his company is incapable of addressing employee concerns.
“Thinking that BP is going to guarantee anonymity is a joke,” Gunther said. “Thinking that you will be able to take issues directly to BP without retribution is an even bigger joke.”
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