NEW ORLEANS – A New Orleans-based blogger who published a chain of leaked emails related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement was subjected to an intense investigation to determine how he might have received the documents, according to a report authored by IBM.
The personal background and work of investigative journalist Jason Brad Berry, who operates the website American Zombie, was the subject of a March 26 report compiled by IBM’s CyberSecurity and Privacy Division at the behest of Claims Administrator Patrick Juneau, a Lafayette lawyer who oversees the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement. Berry drew Juneau’s attention when he published a series of emails indicating that powerful lawyers associated with the case had selected more than 400 of their largest claims to be paid ahead of other claimants.
On March 11, Berry posted printouts of the emails he said were delivered to him in an envelope with no return address.According to a spreadsheet that was among the documents Berry published, a total of 409 claims were paid off before the general class of claimants.
The expediting operation, which the leaked documents suggest was carried out with Juneau’s approval, has been the subject of intense scrutiny and criticism by Berry and others.
Berry said the investigation is indicative of the priorities of the Claims Administrator’s Office and Juneau.
“I think it is a shoot the messenger strategy. If they have nothing to hide why would they go to this extent to focusing on me alone, just a blogger? I think that shows us that they’ve got a whole lot more to hide and I wish some larger mainstream journalists would look into this,” he said.
Despite the futility of such efforts, Berry said he was not surprised by Juneau’s attempt to ferret out the source of the leak.
“I don’t know how much it costs, but I think it was probably a huge waste of money. And it is just sad that this Claims Administrator’s Office began by saying they were going to be transparent and they have been anything but,” he said.
Though a standing court order forbids expediting claims, Juneau has since said that the expediting program, conducted in the summer and fall of 2012, was intended to test the integrity of his settlement system. Juneau has also said that BP had full knowledge of the expediting operation – an assertion the oil giant denies.
Critics of the BP settlement maintain that the Juneau-approved expediting program gave members of the powerful Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee (PSC) – who engineered the settlement – and affiliated lawyers an undue advantage, as current claims procedures are far more stringent and are resulting in much smaller payouts.
The 22-page IBM report, chartered by Juneau within days of the leak and dated March 26, began with the acquisition of “all available information on Jason Brad Berry from the internet including his driver’s license, home address, telephone, Facebook, e-mail, known aliases, and affiliated organizations.’’ From there, IBM investigators crosschecked a number of court officers and Juneau subordinates to determine who had access to the leaked emails and whether they had communicated with Berry using official computers.
Among the court personnel scrutinized, the IBM report says, were employees of Louis Freeh, the special master brought in to investigate fraud in the settlement facility, as well as employees of an auditing firm that is examining Juneau’s operations. Also investigated and tagged as the most likely sources of the leak were Christine Reitano and Tiger Sutton, two senior executives who are no longer employed with the Court Supervised Settlement Program and have been accused of corruption by Freeh.
Both Reitano and Sutton dispute Freeh’s corruption claims.
The IBM report discounts the probability that the document leak was the result of hackers or anyone with current access to claims facility documents. Instead, it speculates that Reitano was the most likely source, though it noted there was no direct proof of who leaked the documents.
“The common sender and recipient in the e-mail communications was Christine Reitano,’’ the report reads.
The report also says it is unproven and slightly less likely that Sutton was the source of the leak.
Berry’s publication of the leaked emails caused a stir among lawyers and others who follow the BP case closely, as they appear to document the wholesale expediting of claims, which is expressly forbidden by U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier who is overseeing the case in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Though some observers have said Juneau’s expediting operation was not of great importance, others maintain the leaked documents indicate that powerful PSC lawyers are manipulating the claims process to their own financial advantage – and to the potential detriment of other class members, which they purport to represent.
Under the terms of the settlement, the 18 PSC lawyers not only benefit when their clients have claims settled, they also are in line to split $660 million for negotiating and overseeing the settlement.
One detail captured in the IBM report concerns Louis Freeh and the team he has assembled to investigate Juneau’s operation for corruption. Freeh, who has been on the job for more than a year, has issued two reports that directly led to the resignation or termination of at least five of Juneau’s senior executives. But aside from three instances where he has initiated action against minor claimants, Freeh has yet to publicly document significant corruption in Juneau’s operation. Critics, who include BP attorneys, maintain that Juneau’s operation is rife with corruption and mismanagement.
With regard to the claims expediting operation, Freeh’s team appeared to have been unaware of the operation, at least until Berry published the documents. According to the IBM report, Freeh’s investigators possessed the leaked emails yet had never read them.
“When these e-mails were individually accessed, [IBM investigators] visually verified 9 out of the 10 e-mails were not accessed by the Freeh Group prior to the story being published by American Zombie,’’ the report said.
Neither Juneau or Reitano responded to requests for comment on the investigation.