By Bill and Susan Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—A lengthy email chain between department heads and members of the Governor’s staff shows how BP oil spill funds were transferred through the State’s Emergency Management Agency to the Department of Finance, eventually landing at the Governor’s Beach Mansion.
After lawmakers and reporters began questioning the project in 2015, Governor Robert Bentley had the State’s top law enforcement agency, ALEA, designate the projects information as “Sensitive Security Information.”
The emails reveal how Bentley’s staff, in cooperation with the Department of Finance, volleyed with EMA over how to code the transfer of $1.4 million to the Beach House Fund. Jennifer Ardis, who served as Bentley’s Communication Director at the time, described the money as “leftover funds” from the Deepwater Horizon’s oil spill payments, made in 2010. The 2010 BP grant agreements state: “Use of the Payment. The Payment shall be used and disbursed by the Designated State Agency to pay or otherwise cover costs related to the Event.”
The contract defines the “Event” as follows: A. The State has incurred costs resulting from the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig located in the Gulf of Mexico and the resulting oil spill (the “Event”). It would be difficult for anyone to say Deepwater Horizon oil spill damaged the Governor’s Beach Mansion? Language from the General Fund appropriations states, the funds “…to be used only for the purpose or purposes for which the grant or contribution was or shall be made.”
An array of emails appear to present a complex series of transfers, moving BP funds from the Governor’s Office to the Governor’s BP Fund, on to EMA, where the agency moved it to the Construction Management Department at Finance, from which it was used to pay for vendors working on the Beach Mansion. The effort by Bentley and his staff reached from having the Beach House project declared a Sensitive Security Information, to spinning the project through the press office.
In an email to Jon Barganier, Bentley’s former senior advisor, Rebekah Caldwell Mason wrote, “There is so much misinformation out there regarding the State Beach House (source of funds, scope of project, purpose of the reno, etc.) it’s getting hard for people (such as the Bayou LeBatre Mayor) to separate fact from fiction.” She adds, “Can we ask Franklin [Johnson, the Governor’s deputy legal adviser,] to write up a one page bullet point list of facts regarding the property? I think will be helpful for all of us to be on the same page. I expect we’ll get more calls and letters from Legislators etc.”
Franklin Johnson, in an email to Katherine Lynn, spoke of preventing lawmakers from visiting the Beach House for security reasons: “I have just heard from the architect that there are two legislators at the beach house attempting to gain access. One of the legislators is Johnny Morrow, but the other did not give their name. I have told the architect that the legislators need to contact the Governor’s Office, through Jennifer Ardis, for permission to access the property. My opinion that this property requires secured access and the protocol for accessing the property is the same as the Governor’s Mansion and Wynfield.” Those copied on the email were Jennifer Ardis, Derek Trotter, Blake Hardwick and Jon Barganier, all member’s of Bentley’s staff. Lynn and others agreed with Johnson’s method of dealing with the lawmaker’s meddling.
Beyond the spin and multiple transfers, perhaps irony took a bite out of the project’s timeline when the failed STAARS accounting system delayed the transfer of the funds for two months.