Lawsuit filed against oil and gas companies to face fierce opposition

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wwltv.com

Posted on March 7, 2014 at 11:24 PM

Updated Monday, Mar 10 at 6:57 AM

Dennis Woltering / Eyewitness News
Email: dwoltering@wwltv.com | Twitter: @dwoltering

Monday is a big day in the battle by those with strong ties to the oil and gas industry who are trying to kill the lawsuit that the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority - East has filed against 97 oil and gas companies which it accuses of damaging Louisiana's wetlands.

A court case resumes in East Baton Rouge that challenges Attorney General Buddy Caldwell's approval of the levee authority's hiring of private attorneys in the case.

And state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, who has strong ties and tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry will be among those leading the drive in the Louisiana Legislature when it convenes on Monday.

Adley has proposed a series of bills that would kill the East Bank Levee Authority's lawsuit against the oil and gas companies.

One bill would prevent any governmental subdivision of the state -- such as a levee board -- from bringing such a lawsuit.  Only the state would be able to file such a suit. And if adopted, the law would be retroactive.

Another bill would declare null, void and unenforceable the kind of agreement the levee authority has with its private attorneys in the lawsuit. That would also be retroactive.

Eyewitness News legal analyst Donald "Chick" Foret says all of this is clearly aimed at the levee authority's lawsuit.

"Under these proposed bills, the action of the levee authority is gutted," he says.  "It says you can't file your own lawsuit."

The former vice president of the east bank levee authority, John Barry, says if the legislation passes, "I think it will be extremely harmful." Barry led the effort on the levee authority to sue the oil and gas companies and now runs the nonprofit Restore Louisiana Now to lobby for the lawsuit.

He says if Sen. Adley's legislation is enacted it will take apart the post-Katrina effort to create independent levee boards of flood experts concerned solely about protecting the public.

"What you're doing," he says, "is you're going back to the old system, political favoritism with people who are not flood experts."   

If the legislation is enacted into law, Foret says the question of making the provisions retroactive will face serious court challenges.

Meantime on Monday, another effort to derail the levee authority lawsuit will be heard in the East Baton Rouge Parish court of Judge Janice Clark.   That is where LOGA -- the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association -- has filed a lawsuit against Attorney General Buddy Caldwell.

LOGA is challenging Caldwell's authority to approve the levee authority’s hiring of private counsel working on a contingency fee in the suit against the oil industry.

But last week Sen. Adley fired off a letter to Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson arguing that Judge Clark had a fundraiser that violated the state code of ethics. Adley says the fundraiser was hosted by attorneys in the LOGA lawsuit.

Caldwell's attorney in the case, Wade Shows, says, "It's an insult to the judge. I think it's absurd."

Shows says "I did not go to the fundraiser, nor did I or any member of my firm give her any money." He says he was listed as a host due to a request made well before the LOGA lawsuit was even filed or randomly allotted to Judge Clark.

Judge Clark could not be reached for comment.

Political analyst Dr. Ed Chervenak of the University of New Orleans says it's not unexpected for Adley to raise questions about the judge's ethics. "You know (if you're an opponent) you're going to use every tool at your disposal to try and derail this lawsuit.  So no surprise that they're using these kinds of tactics."

And the letter comes after Judge Clark threatened to hold LOGA's president, Don Briggs, in contempt if he fails to show at Monday's court hearing.

Briggs has missed two previous hearings, claiming illness after Caldwell's attorneys deposed him to prepare for the LOGA lawsuit.

In that deposition, Briggs said he believes oil and gas firms are leaving Louisiana and choosing not to bring business here because of the levee authority lawsuit.

But when asked if he had any evidence  or could name a firm that had made such a decision, he said "No."

The LOGA president's son, Gifford Briggs, vice president of LOGA, says his dad has every intention of being in court on Monday.

"That's his plan right now," he said.  "But that's going to depend on his blood pressure and what his doctor says."

Sen. Adley could not be reached for comment on this story.

 

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