By Guest Columnist MICHAEL DAILEY, a business litigation attorney who is active with several environmental organizations in Georgia.
Lost in the uproar which followed Rep. Joe Barton’s now-famous apology to British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward, for what Barton alleged was a White House “shakedown” of his company leading to the establishment of a $20 Billion escrow fund, was the original Republican scriptwriter for Barton’s ire – Representative Tom Price M.D. of Georgia.
Only hours before Barton unleashed his surprising outpouring of sympathy for the company responsible for delivering America’s foremost environmental disaster, Rep. Price, speaking as Chairman of the Republican Study Committee, issued a statement warning “there is no legal authority for the President to compel a private company to set up or contribute to an escrow account.” Such action, maintained Price, “suggests that the Obama Administration is hard at work exerting its brand of Chicago-style shakedown politics.”
The Congressman’s choice of words was noteworthy. It’s not every day that the President is charged with extortion by members of the opposing political party.
Both men were also unmoved by the fact BP had agreed to the fund’s establishment. But having earned profits of $6 billion during the first quarter of 2010, BP had ample political and legal resources upon which to draw before making its decision. Its board of directors even convened a special meeting to weigh the company’s options before proceeding to meet with President Obama.
As for Price’s assertion that legal authority cannot be found for the creation of such a fund, the Congressman is simply wrong.
He is wrong, first, about BP being a private company; its shares are traded publicly around the world.
Second, where nonresident corporations are shown to have committed serious acts of fraud, as did BP when it lied to governmental officials about its capacity to combat spills like the one now trashing the Gulf, or are guilty of related acts, state law remedies can be marshaled.
In extraordinary cases, assets can be seized and third-party receivers appointed to take control of a wrongdoer’s business. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which BP has claimed applies, specifically upholds the authority of individual states to impose additional liabilities respecting pollution by oil.
Thus, Price’s objection to the President having assisted the states of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana in redressing the extraordinary damages they now confront is scarcely more than petty petulance.
For Price, the greater goal lies in scoring political points. Or making the attempt. To him, efforts exerted by President Obama on behalf of Gulf area constituencies had nothing to do with facilitating prompt and fair compensation and were instead reflective of “this Administration’s drive for greater power and control.”
For one who speaks often about personal responsibility, it is curious why Price would condemn the creation of an escrow fund to redress these unprecedented national damages. To many Americans, establishment of the fund recalls a tradition seemingly lost on many multi-national companies today – taking responsibility for wrongful acts and initiating immediate and tangible steps to set them right.
While Price did call for “legal recourses” should BP sidestep its responsibilities, his stated preference for lawsuits would only delay their satisfaction. In the litigation-driven system that Price professes to prefer, BP would be able to stave off the inevitable day of reckoning with every delaying tactic the law allows, wearing down the patience and resolve of smaller claimants, even reserving to itself the right to declare bankruptcy when and if the expected claims proved too costly or compelling.
For those who pay close attention to today’s Republican Party, Price’s posture is in no way surprising. Increasingly, GOP “movement conservatives” – and Price is clearly one – can be found standing in the corner of America’s most monied interests, no matter how egregious their prior bad acts.
In addition to oil polluters, Price is a friend of banking interests, the same ones working feverishly to derail financial reform legislation. Price’s support for the banks is demonstrated by his having hosted a fundraiser for financial industry donors just one day before voting against financial reform legislation.
That event, which the AJC has reported took place in December 2009 at Washington’s Capitol Hill Club restaurant, brought the Congressman support from banking and financial PAC’s and lobbyists. Price raised nearly $29,000 from these industry groups in that same month, according to the nonpartisan Public Campaign Action Fund. PAC’s affiliated with Bank of America, Credit Suisse, and First Boston, among others, all donated to Price. The fact that these donations coincided in time with the House vote on financial reform legislation has prompted an investigation into the conduct of Price and other House members by the House Office of Congressional Ethics.
Meantime, the sorriest Republican of them all, Joe Barton, was forced to walk back his apology to BP.
Apparently, Barton’s use of the term “shakedown” was okay, as it was part of the originally scripted Republican message. But his unexpected and additional apology to BP was more than Republican leaders could bear, what with public outrage at BP running at fever pitch. Barton was threatened with the loss of his seniority on a key energy committee unless he immediately and forcefully took back his words. Grim-faced, Barton apologized that same day to everyone who had “misconstrued” his earlier remarks.
The one Republican who surely did not misconstrue Barton’s remarks was the one responsible for his most inflammatory language – Tom Price. Last time I checked, Price has offered no apology for his charge of White House “shakedown politics.”
Maybe the good Doctor has calculated that drawing further attention to such words is unwise, what with his own recent experience in hosting a “day-before-the-vote” fundraiser for interest groups desperately eager to win his support against major financial reform. Better not go there, he may have figured, lest someone make the charge that it was he, and not the President, who was engaged in genuine “shakedown politics.”