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BP's new recipe for settlement money: Shame a famous chef

Workers clean oil leftover from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico March 3, 2011 at Perdido Key State Park in Pensacola, Fla.

British Petroleum was dealt another legal blow today, or at least one of its employees was. A federal jury convicted a former BP drilling engineer, Kurt Mix, of one charge of obstruction for deleting text messages related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The conviction comes on the heels of BP's latest public relations move, full-page ads in the New York Times that single out what BP says are frivolous claims by businesses affected by the spill.

The bold print headline of the Times ad reads, "Would you pay this claim?" It goes on to describe an anonymous celebrity chef, widely believed to be Emeril Lagasse, who was awarded more than $8 million dollars for what BP calls fictional losses. The ad claims they were fictional because the chef's management company made more money the year of the spill than the two years prior.

But legally it's all moot. The claim is being paid under the terms that BP agreed to.

"They are now objecting to awards that have been upheld, even within the internal review process," says Georgetown law professor Heidi Li Feldman, "so now they are going to the court of public opinion."

Feldman says that technically speaking, the public's opinion on claims like this one has no legal bearing on their outcome. So why spend thousands of dollars on an ad that isn't going to change things?

"Insofar as BP influences, even subconsciously, the people who are operating the claims procedure," says Feldman, "a public relations campaign could benefit them greatly."

BP likely chose the New York Times because of its wide reach, and because of who reads it, says Roger Williams University law professor David Logan.

"They know the New York Times is the paper of record for lawyers, judges and law professors, and it must be viewed as a sound, strategic investment," he says.

Neither BP nor Lagasse agreed to an interview, though BP issued a statement stating it will continue to fight in court all interpretations of the settlement agreement that it disagrees with.

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.

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