BATON ROUGE -- Gov. John Bel Edwards doubled down Wednesday in his fight with Attorney General Jeff Landry over whether the state should sue the oil and gas industry for its role in causing coastal land loss.
Edwards is sending letters to coastal parishes urging them to file lawsuits in the next 30 days. If they don't, the governor says the state will do it for them.
He said he tried to negotiate a settlement with the oil companies, but that didn’t work.
“I did have a meeting with the oil and gas industry, at which time they didn’t express much interest in continuing to talk,” Edwards said. “So, as I said I would do, we are going to move forward with the litigation.”
That only sparked more conflict with Landry, who once welcomed Edwards to join him in pursuing a resolution to four existing parish lawsuits, but now sides with a Jefferson Parish judge who ruled the state still needs to go through an administrative process with the Department of Natural Resources before taking the oil companies to court.
“It's very frustrating, disappointing and it's hard for me to understand why the governor would not want to use that process,” Landry said. “He is in control of that process. Instead, he's trying to hire a bunch of lawyers under an illegal contract.”
Two industry lobbying groups, the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association and the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, put out a joint statement echoing Landry’s criticism:
“Rather than working to address these issues, it seems the governor is doubling down on this flawed attempt to hire private lawyers to attack Louisiana’s energy industry. That’s alarming, particularly given that the first two lawsuits to proceed to major decisions have been dismissed by federal and state courts.”
Edwards invited some reporters to Baton Rouge to explain his plan to file more suits. He also addressed issues first raised by WWL-TV and The New Orleans Advocate about his controversial contract with outside lawyers.
That contract with Taylor Townsend, the head of Edwards’ political action committee, would have potentially paid Townsend and a team of subcontracted attorneys additional fees beyond the hourly rates permitted by state statute, using a fee structure that may violate the state Ethics Code.
“I reject what the attorney general is saying,” Edwards said. “He doesn't understand the contract or he is purposefully misrepresenting it.”
The governor rejected allegations of cronyism made by Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, a tort-reform group that gets some of its funding from oil and gas companies.
“I'm not going to allow the oil and gas industry to decide who represents the state of Louisiana in litigation against the oil and gas industry,” Edwards said.
Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch director Melissa Landry, who is not related to the attorney general, said her group is not against the lawyers Edwards chose, but how he chose them and tried to pay them.
Attorney General Landry made a similar argument, saying he would approve Edwards’ contract with outside attorneys as long as it complies with the law and allows his office to take the lead in representing the state.
“His problem isn’t with me, it’s with the law,” Landry said.