For Dallas-based EPA investigator Keith Phillips, the visits to a Louisiana oil refinery started in the late '90s, and came, it seems, with dual purposes: business and pleasure.
It started as an investigation into the refinery's waste storage methods and refinery manager Hubert Vidrine, who was eventually prosecuted. But court records show that over time, Phillips, who was married, began a secret affair with a Louisiana FBI agent, Ekko Barnhill, with whom he worked on the case.
While his business trips became fraught with infidelity, his work also unraveled into a string of lies, half-truths and omissions, according to Louisiana Judge Rebecca Doherty's recent court decision. And, the court ruled, the work lies were likely meant to drag out the refinery investigation so the affair with Barnhill could continue.
Doherty sums it up nicely in her decision:
The evidence strongly indicated Agent Phillips deliberately used his investigation and prosecution of Hubert Vidrine to foster, further, facilitate and cloak his extra-marital affair with Agent Barnhill, and perhaps, to exert improper influence over the manner in which she investigated and reported upon this case. Agent Barnhill candidly testified that she and Agent Phillips began a physical, sexual relationship while assigned to this matter, which lasted from approximately 1996 until January or February 2001 ... Thus, the case granted the opportunity for those rendez-vous, as well as providing justification for Agent Phillips wife.
In the course of Phillips's investigation, the judge ruled, he reported a series of twisted facts and false findings, which eventually resulted in Vidrine's indictment. He was arrested, locked up, and released on bond in 1999 only to have the charges voluntarily dismissed by the government four years later. Then he sued, alleging malicious prosecution by the government. He was awarded $1.7 million.
Judge Doherty wrote in her decision that if the investigators had delivered thorough and truthful findings, "Hubert Vidrine would not have been indicted."
What ultimately secured an indictment against Hubert Vidrine was not Mike Franklin [the inspector handling the case before Phillips], as Keith Phillips testified -- it was Keith Phillips' and Phillips' "tweaking" of the Mike Franklin story to create facts, as Agent Phillips wanted to see them. Given the inherent problems, omissions and glaringly obvious weakness of Mike Franklin and his information, Agent Phillips and Barnhill's omission of those problems, and Phillips' dogged pursuit of Hubert Vidrine, this Court is left with the question, "Why?"
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She continued, answering her own question.
During the investigation and prosecution, Agent Barnhill, who was single, lived in South Louisiana; Agent Phillips, who was married, lived in Dallas, Texas with his wife. Prior to and at trial, plaintiffs' counsel consistently argued Agent Phillips used the Vidrine investigation as a cover, excuse and opportunity to facilitate his illicit affair with Agent Barnhill and to hide the affair from his wife. Plaintiffs consistently argued Keith Phillips manufactured a case, both in law and fact, against Hubert Vidrine, and carefully fed the AUSA and his supervisors only the information which would further that end and perpetuate the case, all to promote access to Agent Barnhill and perpetuate and conceal their illicit affair. Regrettably, the Court agrees with plaintiffs: this inappropriate and unprofessional behavior likely was, at least in part (if not in whole) a motivation for Agent Phillips' continued pursuit of Hubert Vidrine, without probable cause, and certainly with a complete and total reckless disregard of Hubert Vidrine's rights.
Phillips pleaded guilty on October 3 to obstruction of justice and perjury, according to a Department of Justice release. He awaits sentencing and faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 for obstruction of justice and five years behind bars and a $250,000 fine on the perjury count.
Hell hath no fury like an oil refinery (and the court of law) scorned.