NEW ORLEANS – Political contributors to Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell have billed taxpayers more than $13.2 million in legal fees, representing the state in Deepwater Horizon litigation that has not gone to trial yet.
Five years after the oil spill, several private attorneys are racking up fees under no-bid contracts that pay up to $600 per hour. The contracts and invoices, obtained from a public records request by the legal watchdog group Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, reveal political contributors to Caldwell are receiving the bulk of the work.
The records show 11 private law firms have billed for work under state contracts. Of the 11 firms, eight have made political donations to Caldwell, according to state campaign finance records.
“Despite recent reforms aimed at improving transparency and accountability in the Attorney General’s Office, it appears that the gravy train of contracts for politically connected trial lawyers continues to roll down the tracks in Louisiana,” Melissa Landry, executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, said.
According to state records, the beneficiaries of the no-bid contracts are law firms whose principals held official positions with Caldwell's campaign organization.
This group includes T. Allen Usry, of New Orleans-based Usry, Weeks & Matthews, who served as campaign manager for Caldwell in the 2011 race. Records show his firm has billed more than $7 million in legal fees associated with the Deepwater Horizon case.
Another lawyer, E. Wade Shows, of Baton Rouge-based Shows, Cali & Walsh, was Caldwell's campaign manager in 2011. The Shows firm has billed $656,000 for work associated with Deepwater Horizon legal work on behalf of the state.
Neither Usury or Shows responded to a request for comment.
Louisiana campaign finance records show that Usry, Weeks & Matthews employees and their relatives gave $115,000 to Caldwell's campaign.
Employees of Shows, Cali & Walsh gave Caldwell's campaign $15,000, according to campaign finance records.
Political connections with Caldwell also extend to another firm, Henry Dart, Attorneys at Law PLC, of Covington. The firm, a small practice with just two attorneys and a paralegal, billed Louisiana taxpayers $3.2 million for Deepwater Horizon work. Campaign finance records show that Dart employees gave Caldwell $35,000 in political donations.
The Dart firm's invoices show his staff investing an extraordinary amount of time on the Deepwater Horizon case. For example, Dart submitted invoices in February, March and April 2011 claiming more than 400 hours a month of work on the Deepwater Horizon case.
“Did Mr. Dart really work 100 hours a week or 13 hours a day, every day including Saturdays and Sundays for three months straight?” Landry said.
Dart did not respond to a request for comment on how he was able to accrue the number of work hours he billed to the state.
Other notable campaign contributors who were granted state contracts to work on behalf of the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office to assist with the Deepwater Horizon litigation include solo practitioner Ceila Cangelosi who received $323,819 and Faircloth, Melton & Keiser – led by trial attorney Jimmy Faircloth who is former executive counsel to Gov. Bobby Jindal – received $1,309,881 in the past three years alone.
The biggest recipient of Deepwater Horizon contract dollars was New Orleans-based law firm Kanner & Whiteley, which has brought in $12,117,711 from their Deepwater Horizon contract with the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office. While the firm and its partners were not listed as campaign contributors to Caldwell they have faced criticism for the quality of their work in the case.
Lead partner Allan Kanner, who makes the most of any contract attorney working on the case at $600 an hour, was once even called out by U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who is overseeing the Deepwater Horizon case, for sleeping in open court.
In contrast to how Caldwell’s office has handled the ongoing litigation, the Florida Attorney General’s Office has contracted with three outside law firms who will split 2.5 percent of the state’s overall award in the matter. However, unlike in Louisiana, these contracts were awarded through an open bidding process.
Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange has publicly said he intends to handle the Deepwater case using primarily in-house counsel. The Alabama case is likely to be the first of the government litigation against BP to actually go to trial, scheduled for next year.
For work in the years leading up to 2013, Strange's office reported spending $200,000 on its in-house legal team. In comparison, Caldwell's office spent $15.4 million on outside legal counsel over the same time period.
In December 2011, Barbier brought up Caldwell’s spending on the Deepwater case in open court noting that while Strange saw fit to use staff attorneys in the matter, the Louisiana Attorney General “apparently [had] no qualms about paying substantial legal fees to multiple lawyers.”
Caldwell's office declined a request for comment on this story.