LA Auditor: Report Questions LA Fish Safety Testing

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Gulf oil spill recovery money intended for testing to ensure fish caught off Louisiana were safe for consumers instead paid for unnecessary iPads, cameras, boats and now-missing fishing equipment, state auditors said, calling the safety program so mismanaged it couldn't even declare if the catch was fit to eat.

         Energy giant BP PLC gave Louisiana millions of dollars for the program aimed at restoring confidence in the state's multibillion-dollar seafood industry after a massive oil spill fouled the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. But auditors said they believe hundreds of thousands of dollars were misspent.

         The Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office found "insufficient sampling of fish for contamination from the oil spill, excessive costs and missing property" in part of the $10.5 million BP-financed seafood safety program overseen by the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in the years after the spill.

         A preliminary draft of the auditor's report, which hasn't been released publicly, was obtained by The Associated Press.

         Beyond problems with the seafood safety program, the auditors say they found widespread financial issues across the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries: questionable purchases, free-wheeling spending with little oversight and missing fishing equipment, drones, guns and other items that belong to the state. And it said the department's management and employees may have violated the agency contract with BP "and state law" in the fish testing program.

         "Overall, our procedures identified a lack of management oversight over LDWF funds and operations," Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera's office says in the draft report, which notes the findings are subject to further review and revision.

         Purpera said Wednesday the draft was being circulated for responses from agency officials. Changes could be made before the public release of the audit within the next two weeks, he said.

         The audit report scrutinized agency management from 2010 through 2015 when Bobby Jindal was Louisiana's governor and Robert Barham was wildlife and fisheries secretary. In January, John Bel Edwards succeeded Jindal as governor, naming Charlie Melancon as the department's secretary.

         Barham said he's seen the draft report and has been given until the end of next week to respond. He disputed some assertions made by the auditor's office, but said he couldn't yet provide specifics because of confidentiality rules involving draft audits.

         "There are some factual errors in the audit findings, and we believe some conclusions are erroneous," Barham said in a telephone interview.

         Melancon sent letters in July to both Purpera and the district attorney in Baton Rouge saying he believes "there may have been misappropriation of public funds or assets by the previous administration of this agency."

         State Inspector General Stephen Street, whose independent office probes suspected fraud and corruption in government, confirmed he also has "an ongoing inquiry" into the department, but said he can't discuss it further.

         Amid the wide range of financial concerns raised by the audit, a third of the report centers on the fish testing program.

         Nearly a third of the domestic seafood in the continental U.S. comes from Louisiana, according to the state seafood board, and the industry has a $2.4 billion state economic impact and employs tens of thousands. But the catastrophic April 2010 oil spill raised contamination concerns, provoking testing to reassure consumers the seafood was safe.

         Wildlife and Fisheries received $10.5 million from BP over three years for a seafood testing program, in a contract that required the agency to test different types of finfish and shellfish for oil contamination.

         The draft audit didn't raise concerns about other testing done on shrimp, oysters and sediment. But auditors took issue with the portion of fish collections based in Venice, at the southeastern tip of boot-shaped Louisiana. About $3 million was spent from December 2010 through August 2014 by the Venice sampling program.

         Less than half the tissue samples needed from fish like tuna, mackerel, snapper and grouper were collected, according to the draft report obtained by AP. A biologist wasn't always present for the sampling, auditors say, and seafood tissue samples sat for days — and sometimes weeks — before being submitted.

         "Management cannot ensure that the work accomplished was sufficient to provide assurances regarding the safety of Louisiana's seafood," the report says.

         Other seafood testing was conducted separately by federal and state officials before harvest areas were allowed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to reopen. The auditor's report doesn't indicate the questionable fish testing was the deciding factor for declaring Louisiana's fisheries safe. The report does suggest, however, that the program spending didn't necessarily comply with the state's agreement with BP.

         According to the report, the Venice sampling team spent $2.3 million of the BP money for boats, fishing and water sports equipment, vehicles, groceries and other items that auditors said "appear excessive."

         For example, $18,000 in cameras and camera equipment were bought though photos weren't required for the fish testing and a department biologist said photos were never taken for the sampling, the draft report says. It also cites $8,000 spent on computers and iPads not used in testing work and says at least $55,000 in property bought for the Venice team is missing, including more than 100 fishing rods and reels, coolers and other sporting equipment.

         Similar purchasing and lost property questions are raised by the report in other areas of agency spending.

         Melancon issued a statement confirming his office received the draft audit and was preparing a formal response. But he said the "information is confidential" until the legislative auditor releases a final report publicly.

         "Therefore, we are unable discuss any specifics," said Melancon, adding the department is cooperating fully with the legislative auditor.

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte



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