Following Complaints From Gulf, Congress Seeks Audit of BP Oil Spill Fund

Washington – Republican Sens. Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Marco Rubio of Florida, unhappy with the handling of the $20 billion fund set up by BP to compensate victims of the 2010 Gulf oil spill, won Senate approval Friday for an independent audit of the organization.

The move amounts to a slap at Kenneth Feinberg, the administrator of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, who has been criticized for the lack of transparency in the distribution of funds and the way the calculations of the payments are made.

Feinberg became a national figure and earned kudos for his administration of the 9/11 victims' fund. But the BP fund has been a much stickier proposition.

The Republican action came as an amendment to an appropriations bill, which is likely to pass and be enacted into law. The House of Representatives has passed a similar amendment.

“Mississippians who submitted claims to the GCCF deserve to know how their claims payments were determined,” said Wicker. “This amendment will bring needed transparency to the claims process, and I am glad to have worked with Senator Rubio and other Gulf Coast members to help advance it.”

Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, also supports the effort. “Sen. Cochran has consistently supported efficiency and transparency in the BP claims process,” said Chris Gallegos, Cochran's spokesman. “This amendment is another means of assuring claimants of that.”

Feinberg said in a statement: “I have said all along, we welcome an independent audit and have been working with the Department of Justice.” The amendment orders the Justice Department to find an independent auditor. According to Feinberg spokeswoman Amy Weiss, about $5.4 billion of the $20 billion fund has been dispersed.

Congress has ratcheted up its criticism of Feinberg and his management of the fund, and the House Natural Resources Committee has called him to testify Thursday at an oversight hearing.

The Wicker and Rubio amendment is attached to an appropriations bill, which is expected to be approved when the Senate returns in a week. The House amendment, sponsored by Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Ala., was approved in July.

“A Department of Justice audit of the GCCF is overdue,” said Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss. “Gulf Coast residents need certainty about the fairness and transparency of the claims process. I will be closely monitoring Mr. Feinberg's hearing in front of the Natural Resources Committee next Thursday.”

The Deepwater Horizon platform operated by BP exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, killing 11 people. The oil spill gushed for nearly three months, and the approximately 4.9 million barrels of oil caused extensive economic and ecological damage to the Gulf Coast.

© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services