NEW ORLEANS – A group of attorneys who filed a controversial lawsuit against 86 oil companies on behalf of Plaquemines Parish were found to have poured tens of thousands of dollars into the last election cycle in order to maintain a parish council majority in favor of the lawsuit.
Plaquemines Parish is situated on a peninsula bisected by the Mississippi River that is home to a population of around 23,000, many of whom are employed in a local economy largely based on oil exploration and extraction efforts. Last year, parish residents received a jolt when attorney John Carmouche, of Baton Rouge-based Talbot, Carmouche & Marcello, headed a group of trial lawyers in filing a lawsuit on behalf of the parish against several oil companies operating on its coast, accusing them of unpermitted drilling and pipeline building activities in the area that have led to coastal land loss and exposed parish resident to flooding dangers.
The lawsuit has been polarizing in the community with several community members speaking out against it claiming that the litigation is sparked by greed on behalf of the law firms involved rather than the well being of the community. In fact, some community members have gone so far as to install signs reading “Stop the lawsuit or kill the parish” in their yards. The conflict has resulted in an attempt to derail the lawsuit by some members of the Plaquemines Parish Council.
Facing pushback from community members, local politicians faced tough reelection campaigns in the last election cycle. According to WWL-TV, Carmouche’s law firm and an associated political action committee, the Clean Water and Land, combined with other law firms working on the litigation to provide a combined $26,000 to candidates running for office in Plaquemines Parish who are in favor of continuing the lawsuit.
That amount included $10,500 for the reelection of 25th Judicial District Judge Michael Clement, who will likely oversee the case after the only other judge in judicial district recused himself.
Melissa Landry, executive director of non-partisan legal watchdog organizations Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, questioned the appropriateness of the campaign funds provided by Carmouche and his associates.
“This was an obvious attempt by a bunch of outsiders to buy political influence in the parish, in an effort to save the misguided lawsuit the lawyers apparently manufactured for money,” she said. “But the people of Plaquemines were savvy enough to see right through it.”
John Baker Jr., chairman of the Center for Legal Integrity and LSU professor emeritus of law, said he is wary of campaign contributions made to judicial candidates.
“In an elective system for judges, people should be able to give money to judicial candidates," he said. "But judges ought to have to recuse themselves from cases involving donors who give above a certain amount. I don’t know what that amount should be."
At the very least Baker suggested Clement should recuse himself from hearing the case due to receiving campaign funds from Carmouche and have a judge brought in from elsewhere.
“If both judges recuse themselves, then you bring in a judge from another district,” he said.
Baker also pointed out that it is not up to local entities to pursue legal action over alleged coastal damage, saying he feels such litigation should be undertaken by the Louisiana Attorney General’s office.
“At this point, I have no way of knowing whether there is any merit to these law suits by coastal parishes against oil companies,” he said. “It should, however, be the Louisiana Attorney General who initially makes that determination and then litigates the claims which affect so many parishes, if he determines that litigation is justified.”
The Plaquemines Parish lawsuit closely mirrors similar legal action brought on behalf of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, which was dismissed in federal court in February–an action that is now being appealed. Other overlapping litigation brought has also been brought on behalf of individual property owners in Jefferson and Plaquemines Parish against the same defendants over the same coastal land loss.