NEWORLEANS-- A civil court judge has ruled in favor of Mayor Mitch Landrieu in the first legal battle of what is becoming an all-out war over control of the Wisner Trust, a donation of oil-rich coastal property made to the city and several other beneficiaries nearly 100 years ago.
Orleans Parish Judge Melvin Zeno ruled that the city does not have to consult with the Wisner Advisory Committee a five-member panel representing each beneficiary in deciding how to dole out millions of dollars a year in royalties to a variety of non-profit agencies.
Zeno also ruled that the committee is a public agency, lifting any cloak of secrecy over its dealings.
More importantly, Zeno ruled that the donation is not a perpetual trust, leaving the donation to expire in August 2014 at the 100-year anniversary of its formation. That sets up the potential for a bitter legal battle over how the Wisner property gets divided if Zeno's ruling stands.
Both sides have staked out hard-line positions. The heirs of philanthropist Edward Wisner, who get 40 percent of the trust's revenues, earlier filed a lawsuit trying to remove Landrieu as the trustee and have the donation ruled perpetual.
The city attorney's office fired back with a bombshell of its own, arguing that the heirs are entitled to nothing and that any family claim ended in the 1970s with the death of Wisner's two daughters. The city currently gets 34.8 percent of the trust's revenues, but could stand to gain control over the entire estate if the courts rule in its favor.
Zeno, however, sidestepped the ownership claims on both sides, setting the stage for more high-stakes litigation. The first move is likely to be an appeal of Zeno's ruling by the heirs.
'I would expect the family to appeal,' said Stephen Green, one of the family heirs. 'As for the ruling, I can only speak for myself, but I feel it is very political. The ruling is very brief and it leaves out all of the family's arguments.'
The city, however, applauded the ruling.
'We are pleased that the Court confirmed what we have said from the very beginning,' the city stated. 'The Advisory Committee is a public entity and in the interest of accountability and transparency, it must be operated in accordance with open meetings law. In addition, the City has the right to allocate its portion of Wisner funding without the approval of the Wisner committee. As trustee, the Mayor will continue to be a good steward of this important asset.'
The other beneficiaries of the trust are Tulane University and LSU, which each receive 12 percent of the revenues, and the Salvation Army, which receives 1.2 percent.