Mike Perlstein / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS -- More than 80 years ago, the Orleans Levee Board took thousands of acres on the east bank of Plaquemines Parish to build a spillway. Landowners were forced to surrender their homes. Their town, called Bohemia, was wiped off the map.
The so-called Bohemia Spillway was never built, but the land turned out to be rich in oil, providing a gusher of revenues for the board that flowed for more than half a century.
Today, the Orleans Levee District owes more than $20 million to families who once lived or owned land on the oil-rich property. But the agency is settling the legal judgment at a rate so slow, it would take hundreds of years to pay off.
Meanwhile, since negotiations to pay off the debt broke down in 2005, lawyers hired by the Levee District to fight the heirs have been paid more than twice as much as the people who are owed the money. The heirs have divided a total of $550,000 since 2005, records show, while attorneys for the Levee Board have received more than $1.2 million to fight the heirs.
Charles Riley, along with his seven siblings and their children, is owed hundreds of thousands of dollars. He calculates that, at the current rate his family is being paid, it would take 864 years for the Levee Board to retire the debt.
'With my family, we're getting paid $62.53 a year,' said Riley, owner of a Marrero construction company. 'Now you divide that up with seven siblings and it's not much to look forward to every year.'
It was an uphill battle for the heirs from the start. After the property was taken in 1925, the original landowners kept the Bohemia story alive for generations through family lore.
Finally, in 1984, the Legislature ordered the land returned, and Louisiana voters approved the measure in a statewide election.
But the Levee Board fought the law and the heirs before the State Supreme Court ordered the agency to pay up. So in 2000, the board agreed to pay more than $21 million. The first check, for $2.3 million, was divided by 275 groups of heirs.
Riley's grandfather, who lived in Bohemia and operated a trading post there until his land was expropriated, lived long enough to see a single payment from the settlement.
'It was very minor, what he was able to see,' Riley said.
The Levee District concedes it owes the money, but the legal judgment does not include a payment schedule. The heirs later sued for permission to seize Board property, but after winning two federal court decisions, the group lost in a split decision by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Beverly Baudouin, along with her law firm Baldwin Haspel Burke and Mayer, represents the heirs. She said the case has been one of the most frustrating of her legal career.
'One of the things for me that's most disheartening is that this should have been a real feel-good litigation. These people are entitled to this money, and it's the right thing for them to have gotten their money back,' Baudouin said. 'But we feel like we have been stonewalled in every attempt at getting them to make payments on a judgment that they have never denied that they owe.'
Records show that the Levee board has whittled down the debt, but sporadically. Since the initial $2.3 million payment in 2000, here are the Levee Board payments to the heirs: 2001 - $371,532; 2002 - $0; 2003 - $1.9 million; 2004 - $600,000; 2005 - $350,000; 2006 - $0; 2007 - $0; 2008 - $100,000; 2009 - $0; 2010 - $100,000.
Those figures show that since settlement negotiations broke down after Hurricane Katrina, the heirs have been paid a total of $550,000. But attorneys' fees since then have topped $1.2 million.
Baudouin says the recent payments don't even dent the $2,000-a-day interest on the debt. Levee Board attorneys dispute that, saying the settlement didn't include interest.
'We're talking about heirs upon heirs,' Baudoin said. 'At this rate of payment, I can't even calculate how many generations it will be before these people are paid the money they're owed.'
The Rileys wonder if they will get paid in their lifetimes.
One of the siblings, Edward Riley, said, 'My grandfather, my father, they all went through it and now they're dead and gone. And now it's like they're trying wait until we're all dead and gone.'
Larry Iverson is trying to collect nearly $150,000 owed to his family. For him, it's as much a matter of principal as it is finances. His aunt helped lead the fight, but died in August pleading for a resolution.
In a letter to Gov. Bobby Jindal before she died, 93-year-old Hilda Iverson wrote: 'As I face expenses during the closing years of my long lifetime, I believe it is time past time for the Orleans Parish Levee Board... to pay its bill.'
Larry Iverson said his aunt never failed to bring up her claim.
'Whenever I'd go and see her, I'd go see her frequently in Reserve at the nursing home, she'd always ask me, 'Anything new on Bohemia?' And I'd have to say no,' Iverson recalled.
The Levee Board responded through one of its attorneys, Michael Botnick, saying it is short on cash and needs most of its budget for flood protection. Botnick's law firm, Gordon Arata, has been paid nearly $500,000 in legal fees since 2005 to keep the heirs at bay. Other firms have been paid over $700,000.
'It's not a question of not wanting to. It's a question of not being able to,' Botnick said.
Botnick said attorneys are not just dealing with the class settlement, but ongoing lawsuits from other heirs. He said the agency is aware of the debt and eager to put it behind the agency, but flood protection must come first.
'We're making a good faith effort to try to reduce the obligations, but at the same time our core mission is flood protection,' Botnick said.
Meanwhile, Charles Riley said he already is recruiting the next generation of his family to carry on the fight.
'They're hoping that we go away,' he said. 'But as far as the Riley family, we're not going away. We're going to fight. We're going to fight to the bitter end.'