Legacy lawsuits have been filed by some of Louisiana’s wealthiest and most powerful people.
Former Gov. Mike Foster, despite being a champion of tort reform, won a large settlement against Exxon to clean up his property in St. Mary Parish. One-time Democratic Party Chairman Buddy Leach saw his clean-up efforts tied up in messy litigation even after his $15 million settlement. Lake Charles oilman and big bucks campaign contributor Bill Dore won the largest remediation judgment to date – $57 million – after his oil industry colleagues turned their back on him.
But perhaps no plaintiffs are more surprising than their heirs of Judge Leander Perez, the longtime political boss of Plaquemines Parish who made his family fabulously wealthy by securing oil royalties through a legendary act of fraud.
Now, Judge Perez’s secret deals – which he kept hidden for more than half a century – are being cited in two lawsuits by seven of his grandchildren against a handful of oil companies.
“It is an eye-opener,” said former Plaquemines Parish President Benny Rousselle, whose family helped fight the Perez regime. “Anytime you take public funds, you’re depriving the public of something, somewhere. That’s why you see people today go to jail for that. And this was just a devious way to take them.”
Perez served as a judge for only one full term, but the title was attached to his name throughout his iron-fisted rule in Plaquemines from 1919 until his death in 1969, first as district attorney, then later as council president. His unparalleled power continued after his death through his two sons, Leander Jr., who became district attorney, and Chalin, who became council president.
But Perez also handed down something else to his children, an oil fortune worth more than $80 million, with all of the royalties coming from a secret interest that Perez fraudulently obtained from parish property through his hidden ownership of a company called Delta Development.
A bitter feud between Leander Jr. and Chalin ultimately led to the family’s political demise in the 1980s, but it took several more years before the 60-year family fraud was discovered.
A one-line entry on a single court document exposed the family’s dark secret. Contained in Chalin’s divorce papers, the document – described by legal scholars as the “Rosetta Stone” of the case – revealed the family’s interest in Delta Development.
With the Perez political machine dismantled, new parish leaders challenged the family in court, exposing the oil leases and taking back future royalties in a landmark lawsuit. The Perez family fought the lawsuit tooth-and-nail, but ultimately settled when the state Supreme Court ruled that clock had not run out on filing the suit because Judge Perez had worked so hard to conceal their ill-gotten riches.
But that disgrace has not prevented seven third-generationheirs of Judge Perez (pictured left) from filing two legacy lawsuits that seek damages for pollution to the property on which they were “lessors, assignees, or third-party beneficiaries of certain mineral and/or surface leases,” according to the petitions.
Not all of the Perez heirs joined the lawsuits. The plaintiffs consist of the four children of Leander Perez Jr., Leander Perez III, Margaret Perez Barton, Catherine Perez Alford and Paula Perez Landrem. Three other grandchildren of Judge Perez joined in the suit, but none of Chalin’s heirs.
The defendants include big oil operators Chevron, Gulf and Shell, along with a handful of smaller independent operators.
Councilman Burghart Turner said he was shocked to the see the Perez family resurface with this type of claim.
“You’ve stolen from the people and now you want to sue for damages. Isn’t that crazy? Only in Plaquemines. I was going to say in America, no. Only in Plaquemines Parish,” Turner said. “I think audacity is even a mild term. So I don’t understand. I can’t even fathom how a person, or a family, who has robbed this parish and this community for so long still feels entitled to claim any right.”
The Perez heirs did not return calls for comment .Their attorneys at Talbot Carmouche and Marcello, the undisputed leaders in legacy claims with about 75 percent of all cases statewide, defended the lawsuits.
“It doesn’t matter whose land. If it’s their land, it’s their land. I have no idea how they got it, when they got, it’s their land,” John Carmouche said.
Carmouche said his firm is still researching the suit it filed last year. But the legal petitions are supported by lease documents going back to the 1950s, the same documents that were used to expose how Judge Perez secretly siphoned royalties from Buras Levee Board lands for more than 60 years.
“I can’t worry about the past. I have to worry what’s happening today,” Carmouche said when asked about the history of the Perez oil interests.
He said the goal of the litigation is to clean up the environment, not to bring more wealth to the oil-rich Perez clan.
“How can you look at anyone in the state, not just the Perezes, but anyone in the state of Louisiana who files these lawsuits, and say, well you did this in the past, well you did this in the past?” Carmouche asked. “They’re suing to clean the environment.”
But Rousselle, among others, is concerned. Any compensation from oil companies should go to the parish, not people who benefitted from ill-gotten royalties.
“It’s amazing to me that this could happen,” Rousselle said. “If anyone deserves the benefit of the loss of those lands, if it’s going to be restored, it’s the parish, the public.”
Gifford Briggs, vice-president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, said that after seeing more than 360 of these lawsuits, nothing surprises him anymore.
Despite decades of contamination by oil and gas companies, and hundreds of millions of dollars paid to landowners through legacy lawsuits, only 12 sites have been cleaned to state standards.
“Who files these lawsuits really is no longer very surprising,” Briggs said. “For the large part, legacy lawsuits are cookie cutter lawsuits. The allegations are the same. The only thing different is the property owners and the plaintiff."