Connie M. Knight, 47, previously of Belle Chasse, La., was sentenced to serve 57 months in prison in New Orleans federal court late yesterday for providing fraudulent hazardous waste safety training in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill, announced Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, and Dana Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana. In addition, Ms. Knight was ordered to pay victim restitution in the amount of $25,300.
“On the heels of the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history, Knight illegally profited from a community already suffering from the impacts of the oil spill by impersonating a federal official and raising false hopes for employment. For that she is being held accountable to the fullest extent of the law,” said Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The Department of Justice is committed to environmental justice and will vigorously prosecute those who victimize vulnerable communities.”
“Knight took advantage of an environmental disaster and the resulting vulnerabilities of an immigrant community,” said U.S. Attorney Boente. “Her callous crime focused on her financial gain, ignoring the potential harm to the restoration of the Louisiana coastal region.”
On Jan. 24, 2013, Knight pleaded guilty to three felony criminal charges and one misdemeanor criminal charge for creating false identification documents and impersonating a federal official. Court documents explained how, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Knight impersonated a high-ranking Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hazardous waste safety instructor and inspector in order to collect money from individuals who hoped to work on the cleanup effort that followed the spill. Knight created and used multiple false federal identifications to bolster her credibility as an OSHA employee and to convince attendees, who were primarily from the Southeast Asian fishing community, that she could ensure them lucrative employment cleaning the spill. In reality, Knight did not have any connection to OSHA, to the cleanup effort, nor did she have training in hazardous waste safety.
Daniel R. Petrole, Deputy Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General stated, “Today’s sentencing sends a strong message to those who would intentionally engage in fraudulent activity that compromises the integrity of the Department of Labor’s OSHA program.”
“The defendant not only defrauded people who were desperate for jobs, but also created a risk that poorly trained workers could expose both themselves and the public to hazardous waste that was improperly handled or cleaned up,” said Cynthia Giles, Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.
Knight claimed her classes satisfied the various safety requirements that all individuals were to complete in order to be employed at a Deepwater Horizon hazardous waste cleanup site. Her fraudulent classes, however, lasted as little as two hours, while the legitimate certifications would take at least six days of classroom training followed by three days of on-site training. At least some attendees later gained access to hazardous waste cleanup sites based on the fraudulent certifications created by Knight.
“OSHA will not tolerate fraudulent training or unscrupulous activity when workers’ health and lives may be at stake,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels. “Inadequate training jeopardizes the safety and health of workers cleaning up hazardous waste sites.”
At the sentencing, Federal District Court Judge Lance Africk considered statements from victims who recounted how Knight targeted the Southeast Asian fishing communities in southern Louisiana, many of whom did not speak or read English. Court documents explained that because many shrimp grounds were closed from the time of the spill through late 2010, Gulf fishermen had to seek other means of employment. To gain access to these fishermen and their families, Knight convinced young bilingual individuals from Southern Louisiana, who believed her to be an OSHA trainer, that she could be a source of employment for their struggling communities. She then used those individuals to publicize her trainings throughout the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian neighborhoods.
According to court documents, Knight required each attendee to pay between $150 and $300 cash to enter a class, and there were at least 950 victims in the Eastern District of Louisiana. After a short presentation in English, Knight would provide false completion certifications and tell attendees to ready their vessels for BP cleanup work, which she claimed would be coming any day.
This case was investigated by the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division, with assistance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the FBI, investigators from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Plaquemines Parish, La., Sheriff’s office.
The case was prosecuted by Patrick M. Duggan of the Environmental Crimes Section of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and Emily K. Greenfield of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana.