Guest commentary: U.S. Chamber fails members on Gulf Coast _lowres

Jean Champagne

Chambers of commerce exist to afford businesspeople a voice in their communities, in order to improve the economic climate for all. In 2008, I served as chairman of the board of the St. Tammany West Chamber of Commerce, a five-star accredited affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and one of less than 50 chambers so recognized nationwide. I joined the U.S. Chamber’s Small Business Council in 2011, participating in forums held to solicit input from small businesses around the country.

Since 2010, I’ve worked as a subcontractor to BP, a subcontractor to the Gulf Coast Claims Facility and a senior BP claims consultant to the accounting and consulting firm Warren Averett. However, I’m not a member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce anymore. On Sept. 5, I resigned, after the U.S. Chamber decided to side with a giant foreign corporation against interests of its own dues-paying small-business members throughout the Gulf Coast.

In 2012, in ostensible good faith, BP negotiated a comprehensive class settlement to resolve claims related to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the ensuing oil gusher that polluted the Gulf of Mexico. But in 2013, BP decided it didn’t like the cost of the settlement to which it had agreed, and sought a judicial ruling overturning a significant portion of it.

To my dismay, the U.S. Chamber filed a friend of the court (amicus) brief in support of BP and argued to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals that this foreign company should be able to escape from a contract into which it had voluntarily entered.

I made repeated efforts to meet with the Chamber’s public policy staff, in an attempt to share insight gained from its many Chamber members in the Gulf with firsthand experience. In return, I received nods of the head and promises to “look into it.” I’m sorry to report that the Chamber made no effort to do so.

The Chamber recently filed a second amicus brief in support of BP’s attempt to undo the settlement — this time urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. In its brief, the Chamber stated that “its function is to represent the interests of its members before the courts,” despite having made no attempt to determine what those interests are.

By its actions, the Chamber has abandoned every one of its Gulf Coast members that were affected by the oil spill. It also has failed to uphold basic norms of contract law, which it extols when they do not conflict with the interests of giant companies.

How in the world does the U.S. Chamber presume to know so much about events on the Gulf Coast, while never having asked its own most-affected members? Is this the same East Coast arrogance that was so evident in the relentlessly self-congratulatory Ken Feinberg, whose senior staff was peopled exclusively with New York, Washington and Philadelphia attorneys and accountants, who then conspicuously avoided direct contact with the people of the Gulf Coast?

The U.S. Chamber’s actions and integrity have been questioned by many Gulf Coast Chambers of Commerce and many now-former U.S. Chamber of Commerce members who cannot understand why their interests were not even disclosed in the Chamber’s amicus brief, much less represented. These same members continue to suffer the unconscionable delays and abandoned claims caused by BP’s refusal to live up to its agreement . These claimants are the small businesses the U.S. Chamber claims to represent.

Recently, my co-counsel Tom Young and I filed a different amicus brief at the U.S. Supreme Court. On behalf of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Pensacola Chamber of Commerce and five other local Gulf Coast chambers, we explained that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce does not represent local chamber interests or those of Gulf Coast businesses. The U.S. Chamber said one of its functions “is to represent the interests of its members in matters before the courts,” but it is doing no such thing.

Jean M. Champagne is a Covington attorney, CPA and certified fraud examiner. His email address is