BATON ROUGE – Gov. John Bel Edwards may answer to the state's voters, but likely no one else, after trying to insert campaign donors as attorneys into controversial lawsuits against oil and gas companies, a spokeswoman for a legal watchdog group said during a recent interview.
"We shouldn't hold out hope for some sort of discipline from the state Bar Association," Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch (LAWW) Executive Director Melissa Landry said during a recent edition of The Red Bayou Show. "I think it is much more likely that as more and more citizens and voters learn about this issue and are outraged by the political patronage and the system of good-old-boy government, I think they'll be given the opportunity to weigh in on this issue, ultimately, when Gov. Edwards is up for re-election."
Since that possible comeuppance won't come until 2019 and the controversy could be forgotten by then, Landry said Edwards, who recently was appointed to the Council of Governors, might instead cop a mea culpa.
"It is entirely possible that the Edwards administration will be responsive to the criticism and make changes to address the concerns about the conflict of interest questions and to change the perception that the governor is running a private legal firm out of his office," she said. "And to change the perception that this is all a system of political patronage. There are things that they can do to move forward that would be much more on the up-and-up, so to speak. If they are responsive to the criticism and they decide to take that route, then we'll have to give credit where credit is due. But only time will tell."
Gov. Edwards' office did not respond to a Louisiana Record request for comment.
In April, Edwards' office announced it had instructed Louisiana Department of Natural Resources Secretary Thomas Harris to intervene in 39 coastal damage lawsuits filed by Plaquemines, Jefferson and Cameron parishes. That action followed Attorney General Jeff Landry's decision to intervene in the same cases, that announcement said.
“This intervention would ensure that the interests of the state of Louisiana are fully protected and that any money recovered in these suits will be spent on coastal restoration,” Gov. Edwards was quoted in the announcement. “The administration’s participation means that all of the coastal stakeholders are now at the table, and I look forward to working with the attorney general and the parishes to bring this matter to a resolution.”
In that same announcement, Landry was quoted as saying he welcomed the Edwards administration's intervention in the cases.
However, amity between the governor and attorney general soon ended as both offices ran into differences over attorneys the governor wanted to hire in the cases. That move went almost unnoticed thanks to last month's floods in Baton Rouge.
"The governor's office and the Department of Natural Resources quietly - very quietly - filed some court records to enroll the governor's, basically his private legal team, in the Jefferson Parish lawsuit on behalf of the state," Melissa Landry said in the interview. "And as the details were brought to light about this cozy arrangement between Gov. Edwards and, basically, his top campaign supporters, it's been deeply troubling to LLAW and a number of other groups and individuals as well."
Edwards wanted a staff of private attorneys, led by former State Rep. Taylor Townsend, who was head of Edwards' transition team before Edwards' inauguration in January and now is in charge of Edwards' Super Political Action Committee, Louisiana Families First, to intervene in the cases on behalf of the state. The choice of Townsend, a Natchitoches resident, raised brows because he is a criminal defense and personal injury attorney with no apparent experience in environmental law or oil and gas litigation.
While some of the attorneys who were proposed to work under Townsend do have that experience, all of those attorneys combined gave tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to the governor during his gubernatorial campaign, according to published reports.
"Obviously, there are conflicts of interest are all over the place," Melissa Landry said.
On Sept. 6, Landry's office issued a letter saying it couldn't approve the contract to hire the private attorneys requested by Gov. Edwards. The proposal is too broad and vague and the attorney general's staff was wary about the proposed fee arrangement by which Edwards' selected attorneys would potentially receive millions of dollars, according to the letter.
The proposal would have allowed the attorneys to charge rates of up to $225 an hour and, in the event of a settlement or an award, could negotiate their own fees in that case.
"This kind of fee shifting arrangement clearly violates both the spirit and the letter of the reforms that the state legislature passed just two years ago," Melissa Landry said.
Edwards cannot be unaware of that law,
"It is shocking, quite frankly, that this language would be included in a new contract for legal services, one initiated by the governor's office," she said. "The governor was certainly very familiar with this issues, he voted on House Bill 799, which was ultimately passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of the legislature while serving as a representative at the time. The governor opposed the bill in committee; he opposed it on the floor."
And, it seems, the Edwards still opposes the legislation but he has to remember he now is governor of Louisiana, Landry said.
"It's one thing to oppose a bill and vote against it when you are a legislator," she said. "It is another thing entirely to ignore the law when you are writing legal contracts or contracts are being drafted on your behalf from the governor's office."
As the controversy progressed, it seemed Edwards also forgot that the state's attorney general's office is constitutionally required to approve state legal contracts, she said.
"Let's look at the tea leaves,"
Landry said. "When the governor's office moved to enroll this team of lawyers in the Jefferson Parish lawsuit, to represent the Department of Natural Resources, and the attorney general filed a motion with the judge, a motion to vacate, basically saying these attorneys could not be involved in this case because they don't represent the state. Because in order to represent the state, the contract has to be authorized by my [Attorney General Jeff Landry's] office and the Division of Administration and that hasn't happened."
The governor's office then filed its own motion,
"The Edwards administration immediately filed another motion to un-enroll those attorneys in that litigation," she said. "The governor's executive council has described their reaction as just sort of a temporary hiccup but I would suggest to you that if they thought they had solid legal grounds to enroll these lawyers in the litigation, that they thought - that they really believed - they did not need the attorney general's approval, they would have let the judge rule on the motion that was filed by the attorney general's office. But they didn't. In other words, they removed the attorneys from the case before the judge had an opportunity to respond to the attorney general's request. I think that clearly suggests that the governor's office recognizes that they are not on the right side of the law."
And now there's the living it down, which could be its own painful experience, but LLAW remains willing to give the Edwards administration its benefit of the doubt,
"Our concern with this issue is not a partisan one," she said. "We raised similar concerns when former the attorney general, who was a Republican, was engaging in these kinds of activities. Our job as a nonpartisan, legal watchdog organization is to keep an eye on the manner in which the state is contracting out for legal services and to try and keep them honest. We'll keep trying to do our part."