Rep. Issa's Oil Spill Oversight Witness Is An Ethics Nightmare

June 02, 2011 8:17 am ET — Brian Powell

Rep. Darrell Issa

Of the hundreds of people House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) could have chosen to testify before Congress and the American people on the subject of "Assessing The Recovery Efforts Of BP And The Obama Administration," he chose Craig Taffaro, president of St. Bernard Parish outside of New Orleans, LA. Taffaro is a long-time critic of the federal government's role in the clean-up effort, which is probably why he was chosen for a hearing that will seek to prove Issa's contention that the Obama administration actively made the situation worse. But that's not all he's known for.

In addition to other questions about his ethics, Taffaro is probably best known as an ally to so-called "spillionaires," a term coined to describe opportunists who used potentially illegal tactics to profit from the destruction wrought by the BP oil disaster.

ProPublica and The Washington Post published a comprehensive piece in April highlighting the shady behavior of Taffaro in particular. According to the story, Taffaro used his position to choose an unqualified clean-up contractor that subsequently hired subcontractors who overcharged BP while pouring campaign funds into Taffaro's coffers. At the same time, Taffaro was reportedly ensuring that fishermen he knew were first in line for the coveted clean-up crew jobs.

From the ProPublica story:

Just days into the crisis, Taffaro did what many parish presidents did: He invoked a Louisiana law that allowed him to declare a 30-day emergency and handle the crisis without most normal government checks and balances. But Taffaro used his powers more broadly than most, saying that he wanted to put money back into the community. Unlike the leaders of other Gulf communities, Taffaro -- not BP -- chose the prime contractor that supervised the cleanup. He and his allies also decided which fishermen would be hired to put out boom and search for oil. At one point, Taffaro hired his future son-in-law to work in the finance department and help on the spill. [...]

At first, everyone was angry with BP. But as the months wore on, some St. Bernard residents directed their frustration at Taffaro, blaming him for handing out jobs and money to a small group of insiders.

ProPublica details how Taffaro chose as the lead contractor managing clean-up efforts in his parish "Loupe Construction and Consulting Co., Inc., a small, family-owned business in a nearby parish with few employees and a bare-bones website that misspelled the company name." The company "had no oil-spill experience at all." The lack of experience apparently showed, with ProPublica alleging gross mismanagement on Loupe's behalf that allowed them to rack up billings from BP while wasting resources.

What Loupe apparently did have was a willingness to play ball, rewarding Taffaro's generosity with political donations. From ProPublica:

In September, Randy Nunez, one of Loupe's lawyers, invited people to an event hall in New Orleans' historic warehouse district to raise money for Craig Taffaro's re-election campaign, two invitees said. Nunez did not return later calls from ProPublica.

The stakes are high for the October election, because the parish council recently bumped the next president's salary from $70,000 to $128,000, a hefty sum in a community with a median household income of about $38,500 a year, about $13,500 below the national median.

More than 200 people showed up for the fundraiser at The Chicory, including Paul Loupe and his wife, witnesses said. Records filed by Taffaro's campaign committee show that he pulled in $207,400 -- more than his combined donations from the previous two years. No other president or presidential candidate in St. Bernard has ever reported raising that much money in a single night, according to Louisiana records available online.

At least $45,800 of that money came from people and companies that ProPublica has linked to the cleanup effort, including Loupe, Nunez's law firm, Park Investments and people and businesses connected to Park. The amount is likely higher than that, but no list of companies that worked on the spill is available for comparison with Taffaro's campaign filings.

As bad as the evidence against Taffaro seems, his suspect behavior doesn't stop with the BP oil spill. His Parish is currently being accused by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development of having violated civil rights laws after Hurricane Katrina through housing discrimination against African-Americans, a claim that Taffaro met with a call to his constituents and the city council to join him in rejecting "an inappropriate insertion into our community."

Taffaro has also asked the state Ethics Commission to review his use of campaign funds to pay for a traffic ticket.

With such a stormy background, how can Issa expect anyone to rely on his testimony? Taffaro's appearance makes Oversight Republicans seem so desperate for partisan witnesses to support their philosophies that they'll give a national platform to even the most suspect of characters.