Oil and Gas

Robert Benoit breaks silence on DNR whistleblower case

by Mike Stagg

Now Mayor-President Joel Robideaux’s confidential assistant, the former DNR chief of staff and Atchafalaya Basin Program assistant director challenges landman Dan Collins to a polygraph test.

Robert Benoit has broken his public silence on statements made by whistleblowing landman Dan Collins and challenged Collins to a debate with both men hooked up to polygraph machines.

In the 11 months since a 19th Judicial District jury found that DNR had retaliated against Collins for exposing wrongdoing in an Atchafalaya Basin water quality project, the landman has been taking his story to the public in forums and in media interviews.

Robert Benoit

Benoit, who worked for DNR for 12 years before becoming confidential assistant to Mayor-President Joel Robideaux — time that included stints as assistant director of the Atchafalaya Basin Program and DNR chief of staff — agreed to an interview with ABiz in order to correct what he says are inaccuracies in Collins’ story. On Friday morning in Benoit’s office inside the City Hall on University Avenue, he had his say.

“My problem with Dan is that, most of the things he’s wrong about, he knows he’s wrong about,” Benoit maintains.“I tell you what, if Dan Collins wants to debate, they can hook us up to lie detector tests. I’ll pay for it. And he can ask me any questions he wants and I’ll ask him some.”

In advance of the interview, Benoit emailed a five-page document he had prepared in response to an article in ABiz on Collins published earlier this year. The document, which Benoit said he prepared himself (with some technical assistance from a former official at DNR’s Office of Mineral Resources), addresses statements made by Collins in that article and in other venues after winning his whistleblower lawsuit.

At the core of the suit is Collins’ claim that he was denied work by DNR and the Atchafalaya Basin Project after he presented evidence of wrongdoing in connection with the Bayou Postillion water quality project to Benoit and then-DNR secretary Scott Angelle, who is now in a runoff with Clay Higgins to replace Charles Boustany in the 3rd Congressional District.

Benoit notes that Collins made his allegations about altered state mineral lease maps in a meeting in which he was present along with Angelle and Charles St. Romain, the then-administrator of the Office of State Lands.

Collins claimed — and a jury agreed — that he was blocked from further work with the Atchafalaya Basin Program and DNR after that.

“He [Collins] said he was blocked from work, and that’s ridiculous,” Benoit says. “We had three non-compete contracts awarded after his ‘quote unquote whistleblowing,’ and he got two of them.”

Benoit says Collins lost out on competitive bid contracts based on technical analysis of the bids that were conducted by independent teams who had no knowledge of Collins’ allegations regarding the Bayou Postillion project. Benoit asserts that no one in state government found that Collins had been cut out of state work. “This was looked at by a whole lot of people and no one sided with [Collins] on this except 12 jurors,” he says.

Dan Collins

Benoit and Collins agree that the Bayou Postillion water quality project was initiated during then-Gov. Mike Foster’s administration and that the late Newman Trowbridge played a central role in winning property owner approval for the project since the bayou ran through land owned by Trowbridge’s extended family.

In "The Newman Trowbridge Files," a July 2007 story in ABiz sister pub The IND, it was revealed that Trowbridge got the Atchafalaya Basin Program to agree to widen and deepen the dredge in order to open the land along Bayou Postillion to oil and gas drilling. Making the bayou drilling barge friendly was one condition of getting the landowners’ approval of the project.

Benoit says, though, that Collins’ assertion that the dredging led to the drilling that began in the area after completion of the project is false and that, in his trial, Collins’ own witnesses said so.

“Harold Schoeffler testified that the drilling barges accessed those drilling sites through the old river, not through Bayou Postillion,” Benoit says. “And I think Harold Schoeffler knows more about the basin than Dan or anyone else for that matter.”

Benoit says he’s puzzled as to why he ended up in court defending a project in which he had played no role in initiating. He points out that the project was developed long before he went to work for DNR’s Atchafalaya Basin Program in 2004. He also notes that the land deal involved in the dredging was approved by two administrations — Mike Foster’s and Kathleen Blanco’s — and that two commissioners of administration and two attorneys general had signed off on the transaction.

“I don’t know why Dan thinks I own this project,” Benoit says. “But I was forced to defend it because for some reason he never asked Sandra Thompson a question. Never deposed her. I don’t know why he never asked her anything. I guess he has his reasons.” Thompson served as Atchafalaya Basin Program director under Blanco appointee Angelle until her retirement in 2007.

The state is appealing the $750,000 jury award, primarily claiming that Collins was not locked out of work and should not be classified as a state employee.

Benoit is puzzled by the turn his friendship with Collins has taken.

“I don’t have a beef with Dan, but he’s apparently got one with me,” Benoit says. “Dan and I were good friends until he found all this.”

Benoit says he still respects Collins professionally and referred work to him from people who were seeking a good landman to represent them in negotiations with Tuscaloosa Marine Shale drilling companies. “He’s the only landman I’d ever hire to do that kind of work,” Benoit declares.

Benoit, though, defends the Bayou Postillion project and the other two projects that have been carried out by the Atchafalaya Basin Program. “Without these projects, we are going to lose these bayous and with them the mineral royalties attached to state ownership of those waterbottoms,” Benoit explains.

One of the things that Collins has said set off red flags about the Bayou Postillion project was the fact that the cover maps released by the Louisiana Mineral and Energy Board in the mineral lease nomination process had been altered. Bayou Postillion was renamed Bayou Gravenberg and the location of the proposed leases were shown to be 20 miles or more to the west of their actual location.

In Collins’ view, this represented tampering with the state mineral lease process — something he had never seen before. He also has said he believed the altered maps raised troubling questions about the credibility of the state mineral lease process.

Benoit, in the prepared document and in the interview, says the inaccurate maps were an error made by others, not by people in OMR. In the interview, Benoit admits that Rick Heck, director of Petroleum Lands for OMR, provided the information for that part of his written response to Collins’ claims. Benoit says Heck served as an attorney at OMR for about 30 years before retiring.

In the statement Heck helped produce, Benoit goes through a lengthy technical explanation of why the altered cover maps would not have misled “a landman who had dealt with OMR in a nominating and leasing capacity.” That conclusion is based on the fact that accurate location information was included deeper into the lease nomination documents, something that Collins has also noted.

Collins has maintained that the maps were intended to throw off environmentalists and crawfishermen who would have connected the proposed leases to the Bayou Postillion water quality project.

“Those maps would not have thrown off an experienced landman, and Dan Collins is certainly an experienced landman,” Benoit says.

Benoit adds that crawfishermen “have opposed every dredging project proposed.” When asked why that is, Benoit replies, “you’d have to ask them.”

In a Nov. 2 interview on Baton Rouge radio station WHYR, whistleblower Collins revealed that he had filed an ethics complaint against Benoit and then-DNR secretary Scott Angelle in connection with the hijacking of the Bayou Postillion water quality project by oil and gas interests. Collins says the complaint was filed on Dec. 23, 2010.

Benoit and Collins agree that the ethics complaint was brought up in Collins’ trial and that it brought matters to a halt when lawyers for the state argued that it could not be discussed under provisions of the state ethics code. Collins says the complaint was made part of the trial record. Benoit says it was entered but remains sealed.

Benoit believes Collins broke the law when he discussed his ethics complaint during an interview on radio station WHYR in Baton Rouge on Nov. 2. Benoit explains that under the law the accused can discuss an ethics complaint but not the person filing.

“I can talk about the complaint, but nobody else can,” Benoit asserts. “Only the people who are the focus of the complaint can.”

When asked to discuss the complaint, Benoit refused to do so.

“I’m not going to tell you about it, but I promise you I’ll be exonerated just as the court exonerated me in the litigation,” he says.