BATON ROUGE – U.S. Senator David Vitter said he has a "big problem" with Governor Bobby Jindal's inaction on "legacy lawsuit" reform.
Vitter has been one of Jindal's harshest critics on the issue, which pits landowners and trial attorneys against the oil and gas industry over how cleanup of environmental damage from oil drilling years ago should be handled.
"I just think he has been very counter-productive," Vitter said. "He's basically said behind the scenes and through (Secretary of Department of Natural Resources) Scott Angelle that he won't get involved and push legislation until both sides agree on something."
Vitter said legacy lawsuit reform has strong implications for the well-being of the state's economy, but Jindal's lack of involvement gives an edge for trial lawyers.
"...[O]ne side, namely the trial lawyers, said it doesn't want anything to happen," Vitter said. "So that's a recipe for non-action. That's giving their side a veto when they're perfectly happy with nothing happening this session. So I have a big problem with that approach."
Jindal's close relationship with former executive counsel and trial attorney Jimmy Faircloth, who represents one of the state's largest landowners, has been rumored to underlie his handling of the reform issue for which he has been criticized by local and national figures.
A bill favored by the energy industry, HB618, sponsored by Neil Abramson, D–New Orleans, passed the House last week, but is now being held up by Senate President John Alario, R–Westwego, who was Jindal's selection for the top Senate spot.
"Obviously, the Senate leadership is there because of the governor, but I don't know exactly what communications have gone on," Vitter said.
Melissa Landry, Executive Director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, said the orders to hold up the bill could have only come from one place.
"[T]his appears to be an abuse of the process in attempt to make sure that a bill that has the votes doesn't pass," Landry said. "I don't think it is too much to suggest, but directions like that can only come from one place, that being the governor's office. So it is unfortunate that a bill that passed broadly in the House and showed overwhelming support is not even given a fair hearing."
Landry said the democratic process is basically being overthrown.
"The fact of the matter is that it's an abuse of the process," she said. "The bill deserves a fair hearing and it looks like the reason they don't want to give it a fair hearing is because they know it has the votes to pass."
This is not the first time the landowner's side has been implicated in underhanded tactics. Abramson said during a committee hearing on HB618 that his career was threatened if he continued to advance the bill.
The day after the bill passed in committee, Abramson had an ethics violation charge filed against him by Baton Rouge attorney Don Carmouche, who handles numerous legacy cases.
Carmouche has also been seeking to depose Louisiana State University professor Dr. David Dismukes over his academic study that correlated the filing of more than 1,500 legacy lawsuits with a reduction in drilling to the effect of a $6.8 billion loss to the state economy over the past eight years.
Vitter said he is sure that more underhanded behavior is going on behind the scenes to keep the legislation from moving forward.
"I've certainly heard about (those situations) and I believe that they happened and there is a lot more probably happening that I don't know about," he said. "But my take is that there is huge money at stake for a chosen few including these trial lawyers and that's unfortunately what happens when that is the case."
Vitter said another issue that is occurring right now deals with competing legislation that is supported by landowners and trial attorneys.
Sen. Bret Allain, R–Franklin, passed HB760 through the Senate Natural Resources Committee that would provide protection to smaller energy companies which may have not had anything to do with the pollution on "legacy" sites.
Vitter said that clause was put in with hopes of stymieing a group approach to the issue.
"The trial lawyers' side is pushing this anti-indemnity language and I think that's a big red herring to sort of confuse the issue and to help run out the clock," he said. "It's supposed to help the small producers, but the industry side does not want it.
"[T]his is an effort to divide and conquer, confuse the issue and run out the clock."
Any reform would have to pass by the end of the session on June 4.