Timing of BP's spill claims fraud notices questioned

Dark clouds of smoke and fire emerge as oil burns during a controlled fire in the Gulf of Mexico following the 2010 BP oil spill

U.S. Navy, Getty Images

NEW ORLEANS -- In a move that affects potentially thousands of Gulf Coast businesses, the BP oil spill claims office chose the night before an extended Christmas break to send out a large batch of fraud notices to claimants under BP's private spill damage settlement, reports CBS New Orleans affiliate WWL-TV.

The court-supervised claims office run by Lafayette lawyer Patrick Juneau sent the email notices at 9 p.m. Wednesday telling many claimants they're under investigation, the station says.

Under an amnesty policy implemented just last week, the notices advise the suspected claimants that they can spare themselves potential criminal prosecution if they withdraw their claim before the department concludes its review.

Normally, notices go out at 9:00 each night telling claimants whether their claims have been deemed eligible, incomplete or denied. But several attorneys and accountants across the Gulf South exchanged messages of anger and confusion Thursday morning after their clients were hit with the first fraud notices some of them had ever seen.

The notices say nothing about why the claims, all of which were filed at least six months ago and some much longer, are suspected of fraud. That left business owners and their attorneys scratching their heads, with no way of getting answers until next week.

The claims office is closed Thursday through Sunday for the Christmas holiday.

"If the goal was to scare people and get them to drop their claims, they will probably achieve that," said Tom Young, a Florida attorney whose clients received 75 of the notices Wednesday night. "The timing of it is absurd, and the fact that it's a kind of Gestapo, closed-box system is outrageous. They're basically telling my clients and thousands of others, 'You might go to jail, we're not telling you why and, by the way, we're closed. Merry Christmas."'