Gov. John Bel Edwards has been under fire recently for the lawyers he chose to represent the state in a landmark set of lawsuits against the oil and gas industry and for the big payouts those lawyers could receive.
But little public attention has focused on what may be the real jackpot for the attorneys in the litigation.
The big money would almost certainly go to the lawyers representing the parishes that join in the effort to win billions by proving that oil and gas companies contributed to Louisiana's coastal land loss. Should they win the case in court or through a global settlement, those lawyers could claim a percentage of the total damages, whereas the state’s lawyers, according to the Edwards administration, would be paid only for the hours they worked.
The bigger potential payday has set off a scramble to line up those contracts. The winner so far is the Talbot, Carmouche & Marcello firm, which has spent the past 20 years suing oil and gas companies, accusing them of polluting water and soil or causing wetlands loss.
The Baton Rouge-based firm -- which spent nearly $2 million to defeat U.S. Sen. David Vitter in last year's gubernatorial election -- has been hired by Jefferson, Plaquemines, Vermilion, Cameron and St. Bernard parishes. Those are the only parishes to file suits so far.
A number of other parishes have hired lawyers but have not yet filed suits, bringing another raft of firms into the potentially lucrative local litigation. Those include three of the four firms that Edwards has selected to represent the state, as well as Connick & Connick, co-owned by Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick.
In all, the 20 parishes across south Louisiana that are considered part of the coastal zone have the authority to hire their own lawyers and file a lawsuit – or presumably, to join in the state’s suits. On Sept. 21, Edwards wrote officials in the parishes that haven’t sued, asking them to do so within a month. If they don’t, the state will, Edwards wrote.
St. Bernard Parish quietly became the latest parish to file suit on Sept. 29.
'A much better deal'
Working for the parishes is “a much better deal for the private lawyers, because they have a right to a contingent fee, which the state’s lawyers don’t,” said Donald Price, a veteran trial attorney who now works for the state Department of Natural Resources and is Edwards’ point man on the litigation.
Price and others, including the governor, have sought to underscore that the lawyers for the state are taking a big risk without the prospect of a huge reward – a point they hoped to clarify by recently reworking the original contract, which Attorney General Jeff Landry had rejected.
The Edwards camp is trying to counter the narrative that industry leaders have been shopping: that the litigation is a way for the governor to pay back trial-lawyer friends and generate campaign contributions for his 2019 re-election.
That narrative got a boost from Edwards’ appointment of Taylor Townsend to oversee the team of lawyers working for the state. Townsend is a close Edwards ally and leading fundraiser who also heads his super PAC.
While the governor’s team hopes the recent revision of the contract will defuse that controversy, not everyone is buying it.
For instance, Melissa Landry, executive director of the Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, a pro-industry group, says that even after the administration reworked the contract, a judge could ultimately award the attorneys any amount he or she sees fit.
The Edwards camp agrees with that, but notes that the Legislature has imposed a cap of $500 per hour for lawyers working for the state. While lawmakers could choose to ignore the cap they themselves set, Price said, there's little reason to expect such an outcome. Legislators would have to ultimately sign off on any payout and business-friendly Republicans control the House, so the lawyers cannot count on a bonanza.
“It’s a heckuva risk for the four law firms in going forward with this," said lawyer Bernie Boudreaux, a former executive counsel to Gov. Mike Foster who now works for Jones Swanson, one of the firms representing the state. "The state will benefit if we accomplish something. I think some compensation will be afforded.”
Lobbying the voters
As Edwards and Price seek to move ahead with the state’s contract, energy industry leaders have been working hard to discourage local officials from heeding the governor’s call to file new suits against oil and gas.
The pro-industry Grow Louisiana Coalition has sent a mailer to households in St. Mary, Lafourche, Terrebonne, Calcasieu and Iberia parishes over the past two weeks asking residents to lobby their local elected officials to oppose a lawsuit.
The issue has caused a dilemma for many local officials, especially in places where oil and gas has been economically dominant. They don’t want to be seen as hostile to a struggling but still vital sector of the economy. Yet it is these same communities that have watched their land erode, and their leaders want to have a say in any settlement to make sure that they receive money to help them rebuild.
Take Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, whose respective parish presidents, Gordie Dove and Jimmy Cantrelle, met with Price and Edwards on Sept. 30 to discuss the litigation.
Dove and Cantrelle both said in recent interviews that they don’t plan to heed Edwards’ request to file suits in the near future. They asked the governor to wait an additional 30 to 45 days before deciding whether to file on their behalf. He agreed to do so, they said. Price confirmed that the governor's timeline is flexible.
“Terrebonne Parish is owned over 60 percent by oil companies,” Dove said. “Let’s treat them as good corporate citizens.”
Dove said he would prefer to wait to see how the lawsuits filed by other parishes play out in court before filing his own claim.
Cantrelle echoed that view and expressed concern that a lawsuit could leave companies feeling unwanted.
“We’re suffering in Lafourche Parish,” Cantrelle said. “We don’t want to take a chance that the service companies will move."
Pressure on a DA
Under state law, the decision about whom to hire and whether to file suit is up to the parish government if the parish has an approved Coastal Zone Management plan. If it doesn’t, those decisions fall to the district attorneys.
That’s the situation in the 16th Judicial District, which includes Iberia, St. Mary and St. Martin parishes.
The district attorney there, Bofill Duhe, who was given his first job as a prosecutor by Boudreaux two decades ago, retained Boudreaux's current firm, Jones Swanson, to represent the three parishes in the event he decides to sue. Jones Swanson brought in two of the other firms also hired by the state: Lake Charles-based Veron Bice Palermo & Wilson and New Orleans-based Fishman Haygood.
While he’s comfortable with his choice of firms, Duhe said he’s less sure about filing suit.
“All I am doing is gathering info and monitoring the situation,” Duhe said, adding that he has been getting pressured by local oil and gas interests. “In my district, we are economically driven by the oil and gas industry. I support the industry wholeheartedly.”
On Wednesday, the question of how the state and the various coastal parishes are prosecuting their claims against oil and gas will get a broader airing.
State Rep. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette, is convening a hearing of the Natural Resources and Environment Committee, which he chairs, and is seeking testimony from parish presidents, the public, the governor’s office and the attorney general.
Bishop is the author of the 2014 legislation capping the hourly fee that outside attorneys can earn working for the state. And he recently wrote the governor on behalf of three dozen other Republican legislators to express concerns about the lawyers’ contracts.
“I want to make sure everybody has their voice heard to understand where everybody is on coastal lawsuits,” Bishop said. “It’s very fluid. Some are for it. Some are against it.”
David Hammer of WWL-TV contributed to this report.