NEW ORLEANS -- Louisiana’s governor and its attorney general are involved in a dispute over who ultimately has, under the constitution, the authority to hire lawyers to represent the state.
Gov. John Bel Edwards faced criticism after he signed a contract to hire private attorneys to intervene in lawsuits being filed by one parish against oil and gas companies. That prompted Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry to step into the middle of 39 coastal erosion lawsuits filed by four parishes, insisting that his office should take control of the “legacy lawsuits” against certain companies.
Gov. John Bel Edwards
In March, Landry filed motions claiming it was his constitutional right to make claims on the state’s behalf regarding violations by oil and gas companies, including legacy claims. By filing the motions, Landry essentially joined those claims made by three parishes, a move not welcomed by private attorneys already representing the parishes.
In court documents, Landry said the attorney general’s claims supersede those made by the parishes. He also only made claims against the companies for damages done for canal dredging, not for any other pollution alleged by the parishes.
John S. Baker, professor emeritus at Louisiana State University Law Center, said the current conflict between the governor and the attorney is an ongoing contest.
“The current conflict between Gov. Edwards and attorney general Landry continues to be a contest between the two officeholders as far as who has ultimate authority under the Louisiana Constitution to hire attorneys to represent the state,” Baker told the Louisiana Record.
There isn’t anything wrong with a governor hiring a political and financial backer to represent the state, Baker said.
“The issue involves approval of the terms of the contract to hire the attorney(s),” he said. “Under the previous administration, as far as I know, the governor’s office knew that it needed the attorney general’s sign-off if it wished to hire its own counsel in litigation in which the state was involved. Sometimes, the two offices were in conflict. Certainly, a governor cannot usurp the powers assigned by the state's constitution to the state’s attorney general.”
The suits filed by Jefferson, Plaquemines, Vermilion and Cameron parishes accuse dozens of oil, gas and pipeline companies of causing damage to wetlands from dredging and other operations. It also accused them of improperly disposing of waste materials.
The Edwards administration signed a contract with lawyer and former state representative Taylor Townsend of Natchitoches to join the lawsuit filed by Jefferson Parish, according to a report in the Baton Rouge Advocate.
The issue came to a head last month when a judge threw out the lawsuit filed by Jefferson Parish, ruling it had not exhausted all other legal remedies. The Edwards administration argued it had only a limited time to appeal that judgment, so it decided to hire private lawyers.
Townsend was co-chairman of the governor’s transition team and leads Edwards’ super PAC fundraising committee, Louisiana Families First.
He has, according to the Advocate, signed on as subcontractor to a group of lawyers that includes Bernie Boudreaux, J. Rock Palermo--a major Edwards’ donor, and Jim Swanson of the New Orleans firm Fishman Haygood Phelps Walmsley Willis & Swanson, plus Jim Garner of the New Orleans firm Sher Garner Cahill Richter Klein & Hilbert.
“Gov. John Bel Edwards’ attempt to hire his top political supporters to represent the state in litigation that could generate billions in legal fees is unconscionable," Melissa Landry, executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse, told the Louisiana Record. "This arrangement may be a dream come true for the small group of plaintiff lawyers who helped Gov. Edwards get elected, but to everyone else, it appears to be an ethical nightmare.
Landry said It is not unreasonable for people to expect more from their governor, who promised to live and serve by the "honor code."
"The governor, as you know, is a lawyer who has had long-term relationships with a lot of these people, so I don’t think it’s cronyism; it’s just people the governor has a tremendous amount of faith in,” Matthew Block, Bel Edwards’ executive counsel, said in a statement. .