BP spill settlement money to pay for dozens of recreation projects

Governor John Bel Edwards, Secretary of Wildlife and Fisheries Jack Montoucet and CPRA Board Chair Johnny Bradberry talk in 2017 at the newly-restored beach on Elmer's Island. The island was restored as part of the Caminada Headland project. (Photo by Michael DeMocker, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)

An attack ad in the governor’s race was pulled from airwaves Friday after claiming Edwards’ military buddy landed a contract worth up to $65 million, even though the contract was never awarded.

Truth in Politics, a 501(c)(4) co-founded by GOP donor Lane Grigsby, launched the attack ad, which claims that after Edwards was elected, “backroom deals begin” and that his roommate at West Point, Murray Starkel, “lands a state contract worth up to $65 million.”

But the contract in question, for coastal restoration work, was never awarded to any of the four bidders who were deemed qualified, including Starkel’s firm, Ecological Service Partners, LLC.

Truth in Politics replaced the spot with a revised version after the original was pulled by TV stations in New Orleans, where it was running, but not before Edwards’ campaign and his allies blasted the organization.

Chip Kline, chair of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority board, said in a statement that the organization “has never issued Mr. Starkel, nor his company, a contract of any kind.” Starkel’s firm was one of four companies that submitted proposals for the work but CPRA announced at a meeting in August it was not awarding the contract to any of the proposers, he added.

“False allegations like these are not productive and call into question the integrity of the coastal program which receives overwhelming bipartisan support. This is an unnecessary distraction from the important work we are doing to protect and restore our coast,” Kline said in a statement.

Starkel appeared in a key ad in Edwards’ 2015 run that featured West Point cadets attesting to Edwards’ adherence to the honor code of the institution. In a statement released by the Edwards campaign Friday, Starkel accused Truth in Politics of trying to “discredit my military service for our country.”

Edwards’ campaign sent a letter to TV stations in New Orleans, where the ad is running, asking for it to be taken down. The campaign said WDSU pulled the ad, but the station did not return messages seeking comment. Cox Media replaced the ad with a new one Truth in Politics sent, according to emails.

Truth in Politics spokesman Jay Connaughton, in a lengthy statement, appeared to stand by the ad and said “just highlighting one project that didn’t move forward is misleading,” calling the deal “shady.” The ad only references the $65 million project, however, and the ad was replaced with a new version. The new spot changed the wording from Starkel landing a contract to his being "poised to cash in." 

“Whether you call it a contract, an award or just a shady deal, it shows Louisianans that corruption is alive and well in our state,” Connaughton said.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com