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The Buccaneers Tried Accounting Tricks To Claim Money From The BP Oil Spill

Photo: Al Messerschmidt (Getty)

This is something else: A federal appeals court rejected the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ attempt to secure nearly $20 million from a settlement fund designed to compensate victims of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, on the grounds that the Bucs tried to use some shady-ass accounting to justify their claim.

The unanimous order from the three-judge Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals dropped Friday, just in time for no one to notice it before the long holiday weekend. It upheld a district court ruling that essentially says the Bucs failed to show that their revenue from a three-month stretch of 2010 was much less than a corresponding period from 2011—a causation test required by the settlement agreement for claimants along the Gulf of Mexico as distant from the spill as Tampa, Florida. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying on the Bucs’ part.

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The Associated Press wrote a brief item about the Fifth Circuit’s decision that got picked up by Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio, who found the order and discovered exactly the kind of trick the Bucs tried to pull off. Oil giant BP agreed to pay $20 billion to settle claims from the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion. The Fifth Circuit—comprised of one judge each appointed by presidents Reagan, Obama, and Trump—acknowledged that sports teams along the Gulf Coast were well within their rights to seek damages as a result of the spill. It was the way the Bucs went about filing their $19.5 million claim that didn’t pass the smell test.

To qualify, claimants had to show a revenue downturn of 15 percent between any three-month period between May and December 2010, followed by a 10 percent revenue increase during the same three-month stretch in 2011. The Bucs chose May–July 2010 and May–July 2011, citing a change in when they received NFL Ventures revenue—or revenue which is shared between teams. The Bucs’ financials showed a nearly 500 percent upturn in NFL Ventures revenue in that period of 2011 compared to the previous year, which would appear to meet the criteria to receive compensation.

But where did a spike that size come from? The Bucs claimed that the NFL directed it to record a full year’s worth of NFL ventures revenue during April, May, and June 2011, in the event of a work stoppage, before recording the remainder in August, after the lockout ended. This gets a bit complicated, so let’s just quote from the appeals court’s ruling (emphasis mine):

To support its explanation, the team submitted an affidavit from its controller, Christopher Denner, stating that in light of the prospects of a lockout, the NFL had “provided a NFL Ventures revenue forecast of amounts estimated to be earned during April 1, 2011–March 31, 2012,” and that the team had recognized the revenue earlier than normal “[b]ased on this information.” The team, however, never submitted financial statements or other evidence showing that it made and implemented this accounting decision during 2011 (as opposed to later when it learned of the requirements for a Deepwater Horizon claim). The only dated financial statements have an “as of” date of October 2014. Another (undated) set was created for purposes of the claim by an accounting firm that often works on BP claims with the Buccaneers’ lawyers. There is nothing from the Buccaneers’ regular accounting firm indicating that it decided in 2011 that the NFL Ventures revenue should be allocated differently.

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Got that? The Bucs appeared to have retconned later financial statements specifically to fit the settlement’s claims criteria to get their hands on $19.5 million in compensation for so-called lost revenue. And it almost worked! Though the claims administrator initially denied the claim, an appeals panel approved it, on the grounds that the NFL lockout presented a “unique” set of circumstances that allowed for revenue reallocations to correct “errors.” But BP appealed that decision to the federal district court, which reinstated the claim’s denial.

As the appeals court noted, the district court found that the Bucs typically recorded their NFL Ventures revenues during the season. That’s when the appeals court really dunked on the Bucs (emphasis mine):

Indeed, by arguing that the threat of a lockout justified recording NFL Ventures revenue in May and June of 2011, the team essentially concedes that it ordinarily would not have recorded NFL Ventures revenue in those months.

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And:

The team relies solely on the affidavit of its controller and repeatedly misrepresents it as recounting a directive from the NFL that teams should book NFL Ventures revenue during the offseason.

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Leave it to the Bucs to find a way to make an oil company that had been responsible for the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history look good.

You can read the Fifth Circuit’s decision here.

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Dom Cosentino

Dom Cosentino is a staff writer at Deadspin.