Republican: ‘Chicago-style vote buying’ might be influencing oil spill talks

A House Republican on Friday questioned whether the Obama administration is trying to funnel oil spill money to Florida to help President Obama’s reelection chances. 

Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) told the The Hill the Department of Justice (DOJ) appears to be pursuing a settlement with BP over the Gulf Coast spill that would give the federal government more control over the payments that states receive.

He said the administration might be trying to take control of the money for "Chicago-style vote buying" in a swing state that could deterimine the outcome of the election. 

"The timing of this move certainly begs the question of whether the administration is attempting to structure a settlement agreement to influence votes in Florida at the expense of Alabama, Mississippi and the other Gulf states," Bonner told The Hill.

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"While no one is asking DOJ to make these negotiations public, this is one option that should be scrapped immediately," Bonner added. "If true, this smacks of Chicago-style vote buying at its worst, and it would give the term brazen new meaning."

Bonner and other Republicans in the House and Senate on Thursday called on Attorney General Eric Holder to ensure that Gulf coast states keep control a significant amount of the billions of dollars in fines BP will likely pay for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill.

The GOP letter notes that Justice may be considering a settlement with BP that includes Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) fines as well as fines under the Clean Water Act (CWA). If true, control of the fines by Gulf states will depend on how the fines are split between NRDA and CWA.

NRDA fines are based on the amount of environmental damage done by polluters, and are more under the control of the federal government. In contrast, fines under the CWA would be subject to the RESTORE Act, which holds that 80 percent of the money collected would be given to the Gulf states for environmental cleanup.

Republicans said that while NRDA fines "may not be problematic," leaning on NRDA too much would ignore the intent of Congress, which just this year voted to give states more control over environmental cleanup money.

"We are, in the strongest possible terms, opposed to a settlement agreement that disproportionately applies penalties to NRDA over the CWA," the letter says. "Any attempt to do so would be viewed as an effort to circumvent the will of Congress and the president, and the enacted formulas and procedure agreed upon in public law under the RESTORE Act."

The letter was sent on the same day that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in Florida that he too supports full use of the RESTORE Act.

"The RESTORE Act is law," Boehner said, according to PNJ.com. "The money is going to go to the states that were affected by this."

Bonner added that a fine structure that leans on the NRDA would strangely put the Obama administration in the position of favoring fines in the form of a tax break for BP, since NRDA fines are partly tax-deductible.

"This would be hypocrisy at its worst if President Obama, who has blasted Republicans for being puppets of 'big oil,' ends up giving the company responsible for the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history a major tax write-off just weeks before the November 6 election," Bonner said Thursday.

Aside from Bonner, the letter was signed by Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), and Reps. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), Pete Olson (R-Texas), Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) and Steve Southerland (R-Fla.).

— This story was updated at 12:01 p.m. and again at 12:33 p.m. and 12:54 p.m.

— Ben Geman contributed.