State Sen. Ben Brooks questions Bayou La Batre’s use of BP funds for grant writer


State Sen. Ben Brooks said this week that he opposed Bayou La Batre paying a grant-writing firm a half-million dollars out of BP’s oil spill recovery money funneled through the state.

“I’ve got constituents who are fishermen, hardworking families that are literally wiped out by this spill, can’t do anything,” said Brooks, R-Mobile. “You’ve got to ask, ‘Why isn’t that money going to the fishermen and the citizens in the area?'”

A spokesman for Gov. Bob Riley said the state had to trust local officials in deciding how to spend the money. Bayou La Batre Mayor Stan Wright said that the city used BP’s money to help out-of-work residents put food on the table.

Bayou La Batre got $8.5 million from BP. From that, it paid Galbraith and Associates – a frequent grant-writer for the city – more than $500,000 to manage coastal protection, including oversight of a program that hired local boat owners to install boom, records show.

J&W Marine Enterprises was budgeted $7.4 million to implement the program, plus the city paid more than $200,000 for an engineering firm to keep watch over boats at work on the water, records show.

On May 7, Riley asked coastal cities to quickly submit plans for using $25 million in BP money, as a massive oil slick moved toward Alabama. Riley also asked local legislators to review the plans, officials said. In Bayou La Batre’s case, that included Brooks and state Rep. Spencer Collier, R-Irvington.

The Press-Register obtained a copy of an e-mail Brooks wrote on May 8 to Riley’s chief of staff, explaining that he couldn’t support any grant-writing fees in Bayou La Batre’s proposal, even though he agreed with the city’s booming plans.

Brooks’ e-mail expressed concern over “certain administrative costs or fees,”

including a percentage fee for a grant writer. Todd Stacy, a Riley spokesman, said that the city’s first application didn’t refer to grant-writing fees – it asked for $450,000 for “project management.”

In response to Brooks’ e-mail, Stacy said, the governor’s office also called Wright, and the mayor said the city wasn’t asking for grant-writing fees.

“To a degree, we have to trust that the local officials are going to spend the money appropriately and wisely,” Stacy said.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management also reviewed city applications for “effectiveness of booming strategies and the environmental efforts,” a department spokesman said.

Cities and other organizations often hire firms to write the sometimes-complicated applications for competitive grants. A grant writer is usually paid a percentage from the grant when the organization wins money.

Brooks said in the case of the BP funding, “this was guaranteed money.”

“I don’t understand why there would be a grant writer,” Brooks added.

Janey Galbraith, who couldn’t be reached for comment Friday, has said that her firm charged a 6 percent fee to manage the project, below the industry standard of up to 10 percent.

On Friday, Collier said plans developed at the local level “seemed like very valid projects, and that’s what I communicated to the governor.”

When asked about the fees to Galbraith and Associates, Collier said “I have full confidence in both of the mayors in my district.”

Wright did not return calls for comment Friday, but released a statement that read, in part:

“In the middle of an unprecedented disaster, questions are being asked of a program that successfully provided over 700 people with the means to put food on their tables at a time when they had no other opportunities.

“The men and women involved in this program should be commended for developing and implementing a massive response effort that put boats in the water and put people to work within 72 hours to help protect the waters they depend on for their livelihood.”

Wright said every proposal from the city has been “fully transparent” and was approved by the governor’s office.

Brooks also said that in a May 7 meeting, Wright initially proposed giving the booming contract to his brother, Gordy Wright, or a commercial fishing association his brother led.

“At some point he decided he would go with a private contractor instead,” Brooks said of the mayor.

Gordy Wright ended up working as a supervisor for the private contractor, J&W Marine.

The city ran its booming program at the same time BP was paying boat owners for similar services through a program BP calls Vessels of Opportunity.

BP has said that it is merging the city program with its own, allowing the city to pick a contractor to run three vessel staging areas. That decision prompted public outcry from some boat owners in the BP-run program, who questioned the city’s ability to handle the program fairly.

Mayor Wright has labeled Brooks’ opposition as politically motivated because Wright is not supporting Brooks’ re-election bid.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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