Not a single drop of the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico touched the land-locked city of Homestead, Fla., or the Keys peninsula to the south.
But a Homestead businessman saw the April 2010 oil rig explosion and subsequent environmental disaster as an opportunity to cash in, authorities say. Jean Mari Lindor filed about $15 million in BP damage claims for himself and others for wages purportedly lost due to the spill's economic hit on the region's tourism and fishing industry.
Lindor submitted as many as 700 suspicious claims, mostly for low-income workers who each paid him a processing fee of $300, a prosecutor said in federal court last week. As a result, Lindor and the other South Florida claimants were paid about $3 million from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, which was established by BP after the protracted Deepwater Horizon spill.
Lindor, arrested earlier this month, is among nearly 110 people nationwide who have been charged with defrauding the BP oil-spill fund program over the past two years, according to the Department of Justice. The majority of the offenders have been charged in Alabama.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald said Lindor filed "fraudulent documents" as he allegedly fleeced the $20 billion compensation program set up by BP for oil spill victims in an agreement with the Obama administration.
The prosecutor said Lindor, 41, committed "multiple frauds" as he engineered an "affinity crime," noting the majority of people who filed the loss claims through his business Noula, Inc., were, like him, of Haitian descent and lived in South Florida. In court, Watts-Fitzgerald also cast doubt about the general validity of their claims, because they lived so far away from the spill off the Gulf Coast.
Under the BP fund program, any person or business in the United States or foreign countries could file compensation claims for lost wages or other economic damage caused by the disaster, as long as they submitted proof, including legitimate documentation, such as income tax returns and other financial records.
Lindor's Miami attorney, Joel DeFabio, said that he and his client "looked forward to defending the case."
"It seems that the allegations in this case are on par with BP's continued representation that its rigs were safe," DeFabio said, adding that he was "skeptical of the government's claim that the oil spill had no effect on people's wages in the Keys area."
In other South Florida criminal cases, offenders have been accused of stealing the identities of others to file false claims with the BP fund.
Among them: A Miami federal jury in June convicted Joseph Harvey and Anja Karin Kannell of using the "assumed identities" of actual people living in the Florida Panhandle, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to file fraudulent claims for millions of dollars in lost wages stemming from the spill. They collected about $700,000 in BP payments, authorities say. The Delray Beach couple face sentencing Thursday.
The administrator of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, which was established in August 2010 and dissolved in March of this year, said that fraud was an inevitable part of applications seeking BP funds.
"Over the years, I've realized that anytime you establish a very generous public compensation program, it will trigger a certain amount of fraudulent activity," said Kenneth Feinberg, a Washington, D.C., attorney who was appointed by BP and the White House to serve as the fund's claims administrator.
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