BATON ROUGE – The Louisiana Republican Party last month accused Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards of cronyism and a pay-to-play scheme involving lawyer T. Taylor Townsend.
Townsend, a top campaign fundraiser for Edwards, was chosen as the pointman in a controversial lawsuit against the oil and gas companies.
"There is nothing good about what the governor has chosen to do here. It is a dream come true for John Bel's donor friends who he picked to be on the gravy train, but it is a nightmare for the rest of us," Jason Dore, executive director of the Louisiana Republican Party, told the Louisiana Record.
The lawsuit blames the oil and gas industry for destroying the state's coast.
"The legal action in and of itself threatens to further injure a vital industry that is currently on the ropes. Thousands of people have lost their jobs since John Bel Edwards came into office and enacted massive tax increases. This litigation further threatens the livelihood of thousands of Louisiana families," Dore said.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported earlier this year that Louisiana's non-farm employment fell by 11,500 in the previous 12 months. The hardest hit was the oil and gas industry. Many, including Dore, believe the lawsuits against the oil and natural gas industries, which could result in years of costly litigation, will further increase the drop in employment.
Edwards has said he is committed to seeing Louisiana's fragile coast restored and that the oil and natural gas companies will pay for it. The governor met with industry leaders and company executives to try to reach a solution without litigation.
Chris John, president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, and Don Briggs with Louisiana Oil and Gas Associates, sent a letter stating they were not considering settlements and were not interested in further negotiation talks.
When a possibility of a settlement was taken off the table, Edwards proceeded to form a legal team and move forward with a lawsuit. He hired Townsend, a personal injury lawyer from Natchitoches. In addition to being a campaign fundraiser, campaign finance reports indicate a total of $30,000 donated by Townsend and his family during the governor's race and after the election.
"Taylor Townsend has zero experience trying these types of cases," Dore said. "However, he is the head of John Bel Edwards Super PAC. Clearly, Gov. Edwards is more concerned with rewarding friends and donors than putting the best possible legal team in place."
Townsend admits his limited experience with land damage and erosion, but says his role is legal and political strategy, not coastal suit expertise.
"There are a thousand moving parts to this litigation," Townsend told the Louisiana Record. "My job is to make sure these lawyers are doing what is needed to protect the state of Louisiana from further coastal erosion and to do what is in the best interests of the state."
Edwards believes Townsend is the ideal choice for leading the legal team. Not everyone agrees.
"As Rep. Stuart Bishop and the attorney general have eloquently stated, the no-bid contracts that Gov. Edwards gave to his cronies are in violation of the state law," Dore said. "The legislature enacted legislation preventing these very types of contracts where lawyers negotiate a settlement on behalf of the state and their own legal fees."
Townsend rejects the idea that Edwards choose him because of cronyism. He said he is making well below the maximum $500 an hour lawyers can charge representing the state. Townsend will be making $225 per hour. His critics believe this is a blatant example of cronyism regardless of the lower hourly fee.
"Thankfully, attorney general Jeff Landry is upholding his oath to protect the laws of the state of Louisiana. Otherwise, Gov. Edwards and Taylor Townsend's Clintonian pay-to-play scheme would wreak havoc on the Louisiana economy," Dore said.