New Orleans’ independent levee authority on Thursday stood behind its historic lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies for their role in causing coastal damage.
But it also took a small step to appease Gov. Bobby Jindal's coastal restoration agency by agreeing to consider alternative ways to hold the oil industry accountable.
The Jindal administration seemed to be caught off guard last month when the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East filed the lawsuit. But flood authority Vice President John Barry said the board informed Jindal's coastal protection chief, Garret Graves, of its plan to file the lawsuit as early as Dec. 4, 2012.
And Graves acknowledges that he was in a closed-door session when the independent board discussed hiring an attorney to handle the suit.
But Graves now says the board violated open meetings laws in approving a contract with attorney Glad Jones that would pay Jones' firm anywhere from 22 to 32 percent of what the board would collect if they win the case -- which could total as much as $2 billion.
"In executive session where I was invited to participate there was discussion about hiring the attorney with him in the room," said Garret Graves, the Coastal Protection Chief. "They began polling the members to determine their position on hiring him. I immediately notified their president that it was inappropriate. I immediately notified their attorney that it was inappropriate."
After Barry was grilled by a legislative committee in Baton Rouge on Wednesday, the board used its regular meeting Thursday to formally re-affirm the lawsuit. Graves said that was because it needed to correct the procedural errors. Barry said it was to comply with a request from Graves and the governor to reconsider.
"I don’t think that there’s any procedural issues and the governor and Mr. Graves are welcome to take it on anytime, anywhere, any place," said Jones.
Thursday’s board meeting started off with a standing ovation for the board and effusive praise from environmentalists in the audience.
"We feel that what y’all are doing is very important," said Cynthia Sarthou of the Gulf Restoration Network. "It’s very brave and we thank you for taking your position."
But rather than take a totally defiant stance, the board agreed to meet with Graves and hash out their differences. They went into a closed-door executive session at about noon. They didn't emerge to resume the meeting until 4 p.m. At about 3:30, Graves left without making a public comment.
When the board returned to the open meeting, they reaffirmed their commitment to the lawsuit and to the hiring of Jones.
Barry said the board was created by constitutional amendment to be insulated from politics. But it was clear that it couldn't totally avoid pressure from the governor and the Legislature, who also seem displeased with the decision to sue. That was the reasoning behind a provision in the board's contract with Jones referred to as the "poison pill."
While Jones gets nothing if he loses the lawsuit, he stands to collect reasonable fees for his time if the board decides to back out of the suit. So, if the Jindal administration or the Legislature succeeds in ending the litigation, the board would owe Jones public money -- something Graves said is also improper.
Graves said he couldn't deny that the oil industry caused some of the coastal damage with its criss-crossing access canals and invasive pipelines, but he made a point to say the main culprit is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He said a lawsuit against the oil companies distracts from the state's other efforts to get the industry to support restoration work.
Barry said the lawsuit never claims that the oil industry is the only culprit, but simply demands payment for whatever portion of the damage those companies did cause. He cited a study that found oil and gas companies are responsible for 39 percent of the land loss.
"The truth is the truth," Barry said. "Every scientist agrees that the industry has done extraordinary damage."
In the end, the board decided to offer the Jindal administration an olive branch, saying it would consider pausing the "substantive" parts of the lawsuit for 45 days to work with Graves on finding other ways to hold oil companies accountable for coastal damage.
"The suit, as a suit, means nothing to me," said Commissioner Richard Leuttich Jr. "The suit is a means to accomplish the objective which is protection of the coast."