12-year old Energy Lawsuit Goes to Trial in Oklahoma County

Jury selection was scheduled to begin Monday in Oklahoma County District court in a nearly 12-year old lawsuit filed by some taxpayers against ConocoPhillips and the Oklahoma Corporation Commission in a dispute involving nearly $4 million paid to the energy firm through the State’s Underground Storage Tank Indemnity Fund administered through the Commission’s Petroleum Storage Tank Division.

The rarely-used legal suit described as a qui tam action was filed by two former Oklahoma Corporation Commission attorneys Charles W. Wright and Rachel Lawrence Mor. Qui Tam, per Black’s Law Dictionary definition is part “of a Latin phrase meaning ‘who as well.’ It is a statutory remedy for recovery of a penalty for the commission or omission by a public official of a certain act based upon particular transactions or occurrences.”

In other words, Wright and Mor sought recovery of more than $3 million paid to Phillips out of the Indemnity Fund for cleanup of storage tanks and polluted sites. As of 2000, ConocoPhillips had been paid $3,941,170 but Phillips demanded more payments. The Indemnity Fund receives its money from a penny-a-gallon assessment on retail fuel sales purchased by consumers at the pump. But Wright and Mor, working for the Commission at the time Phillips was paid, agreed with the State Auditor and Inspector at the time who issued an Audit Report in 2002which questioned $1,016,824 as overpayment. In 2003, the Administrator of the Indemnity Fund entered into a deal to pay Phillips another $3.6 million but Wright and Mor contended the payment was unlawful, unauthorized, fraudulent and void.

The case slowly worked its way through several Oklahoma County judges over the years with contentious filings made by both sides. Bar complaints were even leveled against some of the attorneys as a result of the bitter rivalry. The suit named ConocoPhillips as well as the Corporation Commission and individual Commissioners Bob Anthony, Denise Bode and Jeff cloud as well as Brooks Mitchell who was director of the Storage tank Division and Ben Jackson, at the time the General Counsel of the Corporation Commission.

In response to the suit, the Commission said it stood behind Brooks Mitchel and believed he had the authority to settle 47 pending claims of Conoco. One unconfirmed account indicated ConocoPhillips had made a $5 million settlement offer. Should a settlement be reached or if Mor and Wright win the case in trial, they will individually recover the money and not the state.





   

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