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Gov. Rick Scott's reluctance to make legal claim for oil spill spurs outrage

TALLAHASSEE — The rosy scene bothered Tampa lawyer Steve Yerrid.

There was Gov. Rick Scott on Monday, happily announcing a $30 million marketing and tourism grant from BP for seven Panhandle counties, thanking a BP senior executive at his side for "stepping up."

Yerrid, appointed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist last year to serve as Florida's special counsel on the oil spill, says the grant is "chump change" compared to at least $1 billion the state could get from filing a claim against the oil giant.

"The fact that we haven't filed a claim, and (Scott's) been in office since January, to me cannot be adequately explained," Yerrid said. "It's not like Florida doesn't need the money."

Scott has said he does not want to resort to a lawsuit, though his office said Monday they are working on a possible strategy for a state claim — a precursor to filing suit.

"My goal is to try to work with BP and make sure we don't end up in litigation," Scott told reporters.

Scott's reluctance irks a cast of Floridians who want the state to receive the same legal consideration as Louisiana and Alabama, which have already joined a federal case that could be worth tens of billions. Time is running out, they say.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, sent Scott two letters, one in December and one Monday, urging him to "doggedly" pursue a claim to cover Florida's damages and protect taxpayers.

If Florida does not file its own claim for lost tax revenues, "there will be absolutely no incentive for BP or other responsible parties to deal with Florida in a fair way," Castor said in an interview.

The one-year anniversary of the oil spill is April 20, which is also the filing deadline for plaintiffs who want to join a case filed against Transocean in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans has consolidated hundreds of lawsuits against BP and other companies over damages.

Crist appointed Yerrid as special oil spill counsel shortly after the explosion. Before his term expired Dec. 31, Yerrid spent eight months researching Florida's lost tax revenues and preparing the state's case with a team of lawyers.

Yerrid sent Scott three letters after the election offering up his data. He heard nothing back.

After that pro bono effort — about 1,000 hours at $1,000 an hour —Yerrid doesn't understand why Scott would ignore his work, which gets more stale as time drifts on.

"If you can get money from an admitted wrongdoer as opposed to making innocent citizens suffer … can that possibly be even debated?" he said.

Scott's team's response: Just because the governor did not connect with Yerrid does not mean he is ignoring the issue.

"It is not over with BP," said spokesman Lane Wright. "It's not like we're not paying attention to the legal side of things."

The Attorney General's office is working closely with Scott's legal team and the Legislature on legal action against BP, confirmed the attorney general's spokeswoman, Jenn Meale.

The Oil Pollution Act, she said, requires parties to submit relief claims to companies prior to entering litigation. Florida is treading carefully and scrutinizing several factors, such as cleanup costs, environmental impacts and comparing tourism seasons. The law was enacted so states could avoid time-sucking litigation, she said.

"It's not April 20 yet, and all options are still on the table and being considered," Meale said, "including whether to enter the lawsuit against Transocean."

Scott's predecessor hopes for a claim.

"Do I think we should file it, on behalf of Florida? Oh, absolutely, yeah," Crist said before a speech Tuesday at Stetson University College of Law.

Is Crist surprised about the governor's restraint?

"Let me put it this way: I remain hopeful that the state does," he said. "Because I think it's important for the future of Florida, and for the fundamental issue of fairness, frankly, to the Sunshine State, that we have a claim."

Florida is probably leaving money on the table that could be used to nourish its coastal-based economy and help affected communities recover from the impact of the spill, said Eric Draper, Audubon of Florida executive director.

Legal action, Draper said, sends a strong message to accused parties that they made a big mistake and had better be careful in the future. Scott doesn't seem willing to come off that way to a big company, he said.

"It could be that the governor just doesn't want to send a strong message to the oil industry about the dangers of offshore drilling," Draper said.

The $30 million grant shows BP is cooperative, Scott's office said. The goal is to "make sure that BP does the right thing," Scott told reporters.

Yerrid can't hide his skepticism.

"I know what can happen when there's a 'just trust me' approach," he said. "This nonsense cannot be tolerated. This is serious stuff, and it's not $30 million stuff."

Times/Herald staff writers Michael C. Bender, Becky Bowers and Times staff researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.

Gov. Rick Scott's reluctance to make legal claim for oil spill spurs outrage 04/12/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 12, 2011 10:47pm]
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