NEW ORLEANS A leading candidate for Gov. Bobby Jindal to name to a New Orleans-area levee authority board so that he can force the end of a controversial coastal erosion lawsuit could have some serious conflicts of interest.
Mark Morgan, the president of an industrial chemical cleanup company in Baton Rouge, openly acknowledges in his application that he could have some conflicts if he is chosen to fill one of two open seats on the board of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East.
But even if the nominating panel that will begin considering four applicants Thursday does not consider Morgan's company's contracts with the West Bank levee authority, the state Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Transportation an ethical problem, Morgan tells WWL-TV that he may still have conflicts that could prevent him from voting on the levee authority's big lawsuit against Big Oil.
Morgan's company, SEMS Inc., has contracts with Shell Oil Co., one of 92 oil and gas companies named in the suit, which charges the defendants with violating permits and causing large portions of the devastating coastal land loss that's robbed the state of critical protection against storm surge.
He also said his firm helped with the BP oil spill cleanup back in 2010. BP is also named as a defendant in the levee authority's landmark lawsuit.
Asked if that means he would have to recuse himself from any votes on the lawsuit if he's named to the levee authority, Morgan said he would have to review it with his attorney, but would most likely have to avoid that particular issue.
'I certainly wouldn't want to put myself in position of losing some of my income or my company get hurt because of a potential vote and certainly wouldn't want that to influence my voting decision,' he said.
Morgan, a professional engineer who would qualify for one of the board's five technical positions, says that removing a potential vote on the lawsuit from the equation could help him focus on the issues he considers more critical for the authority.
'The more and more calls I get about the lawsuit, I realize that we need to focus on flood protection; that's what the board is there for, primarily,' he said.
The nominating committee needs to select a qualified professional to fill the technical position held now by Paul Kemp, as well as an at-large position held now by Jeff Angers. Kemp supports the coastal lawsuit against Big Oil; Angers, appointed last year by Jindal as a part of his overhaul, is against it.
Both Kemp and Angers have submitted applications to the nominating committee. Kemp is a geologist and oceanographer who qualifies for the technical post, while Angers is the head of a recreational boating and fishing association who would have to serve in the at-large position. A fourth applicant, Michael Simms, is a Johns Hopkins-trained geologist who could serve in the technical position.
Morgan, too, would qualify for the technical position. He has served on the levee authority for the West Bank of the New Orleans area, known as Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority West, and was vice president of Jindal's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. He resigned from the West Bank board in 2008 over concerns about new financial disclosure laws.
Kemp bemoans the politicization of the east bank levee authority board that was created by Louisiana voters after Hurricane Katrina to deal with the complex technicalities of flood protection. It replaced a heavily political set of local levee boards that got involved in everything from marinas to casinos before Katrina. The new apolitical east bank board has become a major political football, however, ever since it filed the lawsuit against oil and gas companies and Jindal declared it 'frivolous' and a money grab by greedy trial lawyers.
At Jindal's urging, the Legislature passed a bill to kill the lawsuit in the courts, but the levee authority has challenged it on constitutional and other grounds. The effort to undo the lawsuit from within the board has been so transparent that the board took a vote this spring even though the four new Jindal appointees didn't have the fifth vote they needed to withdraw the suit.
But Kemp says that the impact of the lawsuit will continue even if it is terminated. Two coastal parishes, Jefferson and Plaquemines, followed with similar suits of their own. And the new head of Jindal's coastal restoration authority, Kyle Graham, said at a forum hosted by The Lens last week that 'there will be a day when there's some sort of settlement' by oil and gas to pay for their liabilities for coastal land loss.
'This is not going away,' Kemp said. 'It's been something that we haven't been supposed to talk about and now it's out in the open' because of the lawsuit filed by the east bank levee authority.