On his first vacation since taking office, Gov. John Bel Edwards hopped a private plane with a major campaign donor who he has appointed to head a group of lawyers suing the oil and gas industry on behalf of the state of Louisiana.
Edwards joined Natchitoches lawyer and former state representative Taylor Townsend on a four-day hunting trip to Colorado, renewing questions about the appropriateness of their friendship.
A politician spending time cultivating relationships with campaign donors is nothing new. That much is expected, Dane Ciolino, Loyola University law school professor and legal expert, told the Louisiana Record. It’s what happens after the donations are made that matters.
“Is it appropriate for him to associate with campaign contributors and his friends? That’s obviously something that is not a problem,” Ciolino said. “The problem exists if these people are giving him gratuities.”
Yet after multiple appointments to government positions, many in Louisiana are now calling foul on the governor’s seemingly quid pro quo relationship with Townsend.
Townsend, who also heads the governor's super PAC, Louisiana Families First, personally donated tens of thousands of dollars to Edwards' campaign in 2015. In fact, he donated as much as $27,500 in the span of three weeks in October and November, Louisiana Ethics Administration Program's records show.
The major campaign donor has now been appointed to lead a team of lawyers in what is likely to become a landmark multi-year, multi-billion dollar coastal erosion case against the oil and gas industry.
“I would prefer the governor didn’t hang out with people who are suing us, but this is the reality, it is what it is,” Gifford Briggs, acting-President of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, told the Louisiana Record.
Though Townsend has little experience in environmental litigation, his qualifications are another question for another day, Briggs said. What he knows is that the governor is not shy about appointing friends to positions of power.
“Obviously, there is some relationship between the governor and Taylor,” Briggs said. “And I think the governor has pretty clearly stated that he’s going to have his friends in office, that he’s going to work with people that he knows and people that he trusts. Whether we like it or not, it’s a reality of politics across the board.”
The suit against the oil and gas industry isn’t Townsend’s first time working on behalf of the state since Edwards took office. Back in August, Townsend was tasked with investigating the governor's campaign donations from State Police troopers early last year. The Advocate reports Townsend is contracted to earn up to $150,000 for his work on the oil and gas lawsuit, and a fee of $75,000 for the donation probe.
“I think that, whether you’re the president of the United States or the president of a company, you’re going to put people in positions of power and close to you that you can trust and share the same views as you,” Briggs said. “And obviously in this case, that’s how the governor feels about Taylor.”
Ciolino said the problem isn't socializing, but potential ethical questions.
“There’s no problem with hanging out with donors, socializing with donors, that’s what anybody would expect,” Ciolino said. “The real issue is whether these donors are then giving him gifts of gratuities in expectation of getting government work, which is obviously an ethical problem.”
The governor reportedly paid for his share of the hunting trip, telling The Advocate Townsend is his friend and it was just an opportunity to go on a hunt.
“Would it be improper if someone did pay for my trip? The answer is yes. So you know damn well I paid for it,” Edwards is quoted as saying to The Advocate.
The Louisiana Record reached out to the governor’s office multiple times to confirm — and to determine who footed the bill for Edward’s out-of-state security detail — but the office refused to comment.
There are no legal requirements that compel the governor to show proof that he paid his own way on the trip.
“I think of things as a lawyer, whether it’s politically prudent for him to do that is one issue — but there’s no requirement that he do it,” Ciolino said.
The governor reportedly paid $2,700 for his share of the trip, excluding the flight. It’s unclear whose private plane the governor took to Colorado, or what his share of that was.
While the governor’s hunting buddies may be questionable, his aim is certainly not. The Advocate reported Edwards landed an elk in light snow conditions from 260-yards away.