When the EPA Swat Team comes a knockin' ...

by Heather Miller

A federal raid at the Canal Refinery in Church Point almost 15 years ago unraveled into a faulty indictment thanks to the story of a cocaine addict and two federal agents who were engaged in an extramarital affair.

Sept. 5, 1996 was a day of chaos for employees at the Canal Refinery in Church Point when armed federal agents barged into the facility, threw files onto the floor - and prohibited female employees from using the restroom or making arrangements for their children to be picked up from daycare.

It's been almost 15 years since that Swat Team - commissioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - spent hours rummaging the Church Point refinery in search of hazardous waste. And though no hazardous waste was ever found, Hubert Vidrine of Opelousas, Canal's former manager, was still facing the issue in federal court as recently as June.

The "hazardous waste" the EPA was in search of more than a decade ago reportedly had been spotted the day before when State Police stopped a truck that was delivering materials to Canal. Field tests showed the materials were questionable, which prompted the EPA to send samples to a laboratory for actual testing.

But the investigating agent failed to disclose that a lab test was pending, and based on the opinion of another EPA employee, the EPA had reason to believe the materials were in violation of federal environmental statutes.

According to the civil lawsuit Vidrine has since filed against the U.S. government, "subsequent lab reports did not show that Tank 402 contained hazardous waste ... For the following three years, no charges were filed against Canal or any employee of Canal based upon the evidence obtained."

It was also during those three years that one EPA technical expert turned criminal investigator, Keith Phillips, received a tip from a "source" that Vidrine, through his private petroleum brokering side business, knowingly bought materials that exceeded the regulatory threshold for contaminants.

The "source," Mike Franklin, was a former business associate of Vidrine's who told agents that he obtained a lab report on these materials and warned Vidrine about the "bad stuff" before Vidrine purchased the hazardous waste from another private broker, according to court filings.

But what no government agent told the grand jury when it convened to decide whether Vidrine would be indicted was that Franklin had never actually produced any lab report to support his story. Nor had the government.

The grand jury also never learned that Franklin had a long history of cocaine use, three drug arrests on his record and federal tax liens worth almost $100,000.

Six months after Vidrine was indicted on federal felony environmental charges that could have brought Vidrine to prison for up to five years and imposed millions of dollars in fines, the federal prosecutor on the case told Vidrine's defense attorney that the government still didn't have the "hot" lab report that was necessary to implicate Vidrine.

And two years later, after U.S. District Judge Tucker Melancon barred the government from going to trial without that report and the federal appeals court wouldn't even hear the government's appeal on Melancon's decision, the prosecution persisted.

Court filings say the government went so far as to hypnotize Franklin in an effort to spur his memory of where to find the lab report that tied Vidrine to a truck load of contaminants, a truck that was never proven to have existed.

"In this case, they had no evidence that Mr. Vidrine did anything that harmed anyone - not intentionally, not negligently, or even innocently," Vidrine's lawsuit states.

Throughout the entire investigation, Agent Phillips and FBI agent Ekko Barnhill, who were jointly investigating the case, were having a sexual relationship, according to court filings, one that gave Phillips a reason for needing to travel from Dallas to Lafayette as often as he did.

The United States government eventually dismissed the indictment against Vidrine in September 2003, the night before the trial was set to start and seven years after the raid on Canal took place.

Vidrine waited another seven years to sue the government for lost income, lost earning capacity, legal costs to defend prosecution, damage to he and his wife's reputations, emotional distress, humiliation and loss of consortium.
His side job as a petroleum broker was growing quickly when the investigation began, he claims, but  ceased almost immediately after his name became associated with "bad stuff."

U.S. District Judge Rebecca Doherty presided over the civil lawsuit in June. An employee in Doherty's office said Friday that there is no timeline on when a verdict could be released.

Vidrine's fight to recoup more than $5 million from the feds is another example of how even one slip-up from the federal government can have far-reaching effects on residents in Acadiana. And though the nature of Vidrine's case is different than the indictments exposed in The Independent's cover story, "CONVICTed,"  the civil cases that have followed the indictments show that the federal government's actions here at home potentially cost taxpayers millions of dollars in resources to prosecute  - and millions to defend the when they're challenged.