WASHINGTON — BP oil gushed in the Gulf of Mexico in spring 2010, motivating Patrick Murphy to quit his job as an accountant and embark on a mission to protect the Florida Keys, where he'd grown up.
"No one down there was talking about what they were going to do to clean up or even be prepared for this oil," Murphy said in a January 2013 television interview, just after he had been sworn in as a member of Congress.
Though oil never reached the Keys, Murphy has used the experience to cast himself as an entrepreneur with an environmental conscience. "Immediately following the BP oil spill, Congressman Murphy spent six months in the Gulf of Mexico leading cleanup efforts with his small business, Coastal Environmental Services," reads his official House website.
But a review raises questions of whether Murphy exaggerated his role in the catastrophe.
Coastal Environmental Services — an arm of Murphy's father's construction business — was formed in 2010 and said it "specializes in oil skimming and clean-up efforts as well as other disaster relief and recovery services."
His campaign refuses to make public contracts he says he secured to clean up oil, or to characterize how much oil the company's skimmers cleaned up and how much the firm earned.
The questions come as Murphy is locked in a contentious primary with fellow Rep. Alan Grayson, and Murphy has called for more disclosure of Grayson's business dealings.
"Patrick's company acquired two subcontracts to perform near-shore skimming operations in Louisiana," spokesman Joshua Karp wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "Contracts to skim oil were all subcontracts originating with BP, who funded the skimming cleanup operation. These are proprietary business documents between multiple private companies."
Murphy, in an interview, also cited confidentiality. But last September, he told CBS Miami reporter Jim DeFede that he secured "several" contracts and "we did okay." Pressed for details, Murphy said, "I'd be happy to get you those documents. It's been five years, so we did well."
While Murphy's bio says he spent "six months in the Gulf of Mexico leading cleanup efforts," a timeline provided by his campaign contradicts that.
It states he moved to Louisiana in May "and started looking for opportunities to get involved in the cleanup effort" and began cleanup in July. But it also says Coastal Environmental Services did not get the contracts until "early August" and ceased operations in "late September." The campaign said dispersants caused oil to sink, "making the work of oil skimmers nearly impossible."
State records show Coastal Environmental Services was incorporated in early August 2010, with Murphy's father, the builder Tom Murphy Jr., listed as one of the directors.
The elder Murphy has been a major financial contributor to his son's political career, fueling his campaign, super PACs and showering other Democrats with donations.
In a 2010 interview with the Miami Herald, Tom Murphy said his construction company made a deal with a firm that was involved in Hurricane Katrina cleanup to "design and build oil recovery vessels."
Patrick Murphy has said that a "friend of a friend" invented a skimmer and that he helped with design, putting together "a fleet."
Public records appear to indicate two vessels were associated with the firm. Though the campaign said the skimmers were "sidelined" in late September, the company issued a news release in October touting an innovative skimmer design and said the vessel was "currently operating in the Gulf recovering oil from the Deepwater Horizon well spill."
Karp said the news release was "primarily focused on the innovative design of the skimmer boats" and that in October they were "available for cleanup if conditions required it."
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Patrick Murphy said he started the company after leaving Deloitte & Touche, where he worked as an accountant after graduating from University of Miami. He said he looked at about 10 different ways to "diversify" the family business and the oil cleanup business "is one that we ended up investing in."
His campaign did not characterize how much oil the company collected, saying "Coast Guard pumping stations were not equipped to get this number in the Gulf." A spokesman also declined to say how much Murphy made from the contracts. (The firm paid him a salary of $98,000.)
"Upon completion of the cleanup project, the boats were placed into storage around the Gulf, and Patrick returned home to Florida," Karp said in a statement. "As Patrick weighed the decision to run for Congress, one factor was certainly his experience organizing a company, working with small group of people, working to redesign the skimmer boats, and dealing with the bureaucracy of BP's response to the spill."
Still, Murphy is not highlighting the work in the Senate campaign.
His website makes no mention of the oil effort, saying only that he worked for Deloitte & Touche "before establishing his own environmental cleanup business."