Alabama's Governor Uses Oil Spill Funds to Renovate Coastal Mansion

The state's auditor calls the expenditure "inappropriate" and says there are plenty of other needs that could have been addressed with funds granted to the state following the 2010 BP oil spill.
January 15, 2016, 4:00pm
Photo by Brynn Anderson/AP

Alabama's Republican Gov. Robert Bentley is coming under fire from the state's auditor — and the public at-large — for paying for renovations of a long-neglected state mansion on the Alabama coast with money given to the state by BP in the wake of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The mansion isn't the governor's primary residence — that's in Montgomery. The coastal retreat, originally built in 1965, was damaged by Hurricane Danny in 1997 and remained boarded up and neglected — until now.

Rather than use state general funds to repair the neglected estate, Governor Bentley's office has used BP funds that, according to Bethany Kraft of the Gulf Restoration Program for the Ocean Conservancy, were intended to help the state recover from the massive oil spill.

"BP, to their credit, whether out of fear or calculation, handed out money like candy," Kraft said.

The 2010 grant money came ahead of the massive 2015 settlement between state governments and oil major, which totals over $2 billion for Alabama alone.

The cost of the restoration of the mansion is estimated to be between $1.5 and $1.8 million.

**Related: **BP Just Agreed to Pay $19 Billion in Damages for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Disaster

Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler called the governor's use of BP grant money "inappropriate."

"This problem of money coming in for one purpose, but being diverted to somebody's pet project, is a frequent problem in Alabama government," Zeigler said. "It needs to stop."

He added, "There are plenty of needs [of] the citizens, the businesses, the environment on the Alabama Gulf coast that have been unmet," he said.

Zeigler said that this issue had generated the biggest response he'd gotten from the public since he'd become the state auditor.

"People are livid about this," he said.

Cameron Smith, a columnist for AL.com, said that people thought it was "ridiculous" that the governor had used the money to renovate the beach house.

"It really doesn't sit well with people," he said.

Jennifer Ardis, the governor's director of communications, did not respond to requests for comment. The governor told The New York Times, however, that "the needs have been met along the coast."

That's a claim that some Alabama residents dispute.

Jeff Collier, the mayor of Dauphin Island, a barrier island off the Alabama coast, said that his community was "on the front line" of the BP oil disaster. He estimated that his community had recovered about 75 to 80 percent of the way.

"While we have come a long ways, obviously we still have room to go to get fully restored and recovered," Collier he said.

**Related: **Five Years After BP Disaster, Gulf of Mexico's Fishing Industry Continues to Struggle

Renovations to the governor's mansion are scheduled to be completed by May.

The state auditor said use of the BP funds was a fait accompli and there is no legal way for his office to block the governor's use of the funds.

"I believe the governor purposefully did this first, and then let it be known that he did it later, so that it would be a done deal," Zeigler said. "That's disappointing. It's no wonder that citizens and taxpayers have a strong anti-government feeling."

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