EPA Agent fired, indicted for lying under oath

by Heather Miller

Agent targeted in a civil lawsuit for a wrongful and malicious investigation has been formally charged with obstruction of justice and perjury.

An EPA agent accused of heading a years-long malicious and meritless investigation into a former Church Point oil refinery manager to help facilitate the agent's extramarital affair has been fired and indicted on charges of obstruction of justice and perjury.

The Advocate reports that Agent Keith Phillips, who joined New Orleans FBI agent Ekko Barnhill in a three-year investigation of then Canal Refinery manager Hubert Vidrine, reportedly lied under oath in a 2008 deposition when he denied having a sexual relationship with his joint investigator Barnhill.

Vidrine, an Opelousas resident who was managing Canal Refinery in September 1996 when armed federal agents raided the Church Point business, was indicted on federal environmental charges in 1999. Vidrine's criminal charges of storing "hazardous waste" stemmed from grand jury testimony by Phillips, Barnhill and another key witness, but the charges against Vidrine were eventually dismissed in 2003 when that key witness was found to be a drug addict who had provided uncorroborated information.

Throughout the entire investigation Agents Phillips and Barnhill were reportedly having an extramarital affair that gave Phillips, who worked out of Dallas, a reason to travel to South Louisiana as often as he did, according to court documents:

During the Nov. 25, 2008, deposition, Phillips allegedly told the attorney he and the FBI special agent were "close friends," according to the indictment.

"Did you have an affair with her?" the attorney asked.

"No. No. I take offense to you even putting that in the record," Phillips responded. "I've been married 31 years and you don't stay married 31 years by having extramarital affairs."

The indictment alleges that between Nov. 25, 2008, and March 2011, Phillips called the special agent on more than one occasion in an attempt to influence her not to disclose the existence of their past extramarital affair, explaining to her that he had testified that their relationship was only professional and a friendship.

If convicted, Phillips faces a possible maximum 10-year prison sentence and $250,000 fine on the obstruction of justice count and a possible maximum 5-year prison sentence and $250,000 fine on the perjury count.

As The Independent reported on July 20, Vidrine sued the federal government in 2007 for wrongful and malicious prosecution. He's seeking more than $5 million in 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.

Vidrine's civil case went to trial before U.S. District Judge Rebecca Doherty in June. According to The Advocate, Phillips' 20 years of employment with the EPA ended on July 26, a month after Vidrine's civil suit was heard. Doherty has not yet ruled on the civil lawsuit.

Read more on Vidrine here and here.

For more on the federal government's role and how it impacts lives in Acadiana, read The Independent's July 20 cover story, "CONVICTed."