BATON ROUGE -- When Gov. John Bel Edwards hired a team of lawyers to intervene in a controversial coastal damage suit against oil and gas companies, the attorneys were among his top campaign donors, with one notable exception: Jim Garner.
Garner may have been the hardest for Edwards to justify as part of a new legal team to represent the Department of Natural Resources in a lawsuit against the oil and gas industry. That's because he was already the lead attorney for an industry contractor, Texas Brine LLC, and had active legal claims against the state department over its alleged role in creating the destructive Bayou Corne sinkhole in Assumption Parish.
When asked whether that presented a problem on Wednesday, the governor’s executive counsel, Matthew Block, said the administration would “make sure there’s no conflict of interest.”
Then on Thursday, Garner filed motions to dismiss all of Texas Brine’s claims against the state and DNR, paving the way for Garner to serve as the state's attorney in any number of coastal damage lawsuits.
Even without the Texas Brine matter, Garner stood out in a legal team where the attorneys, their firms and affiliates combined to give $130,000 to the governor’s campaign last fall. In fact, the lead attorney hired by Edwards for the coastal cases, Taylor Townsend, is the head of the governor’s super PAC, Louisiana Families First.
Garner not only gave no money to the Democrat Edwards or his political action committees, he was the enthusiastic lead attorney for the campaign of Edwards’ election opponent, Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter.
Block said that’s proof positive that Edwards hires the best people, regardless of their political bent.
“This governor… doesn’t so much focus on whether we get the politics right on this,” Block said. “He wants to make sure we have the best people involved and I think that’s what he’s done here.”
But Garner was better positioned to be included on the Edwards team than his role with the Vitter campaign would suggest.
His law firm, Sher Garner, announced its affiliation with lobbyists Dan Robin Sr., Dan Robin Jr. and their firm Robin & Associates in February. The Robin firm and family are major donors to the Edwards campaign, having given $41,000 to the governor’s cause last fall.
What’s more, Garner has a long history of working with one of the other key members of the new coastal legal team, Gladstone Jones. Jones is one of the most experienced attorneys in bringing environmental claims against oil and gas companies. He and Garner recently teamed up to pursue potential coastal damage litigation on behalf of St. Bernard Parish.
More famously, Garner and Jones combined forces in civil litigation related to former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s corrupt crime camera program, which helped expose some of the bribes that landed Nagin in federal prison. Ironically, perhaps, the younger Robin purchased Nagin's house on Park Island in 2012, a few months before Nagin was indicted on corruption charges.
“This team has done some work together, they’re confident in each other’s capabilities and they’re confident in each other, and the governor’s confident in them,” Block said.
Garner declined to comment.
The other attorneys hired by the Edwards administration to represent the Department of Natural Resources in the coastal suits include: J. Michael Veron, who filed the first successful lawsuit against the industry over historic environmental damage its operations caused on private property; Bernie Boudreaux, who served as executive counsel to former Gov. Mike Foster and now works for Jones' New Orleans-based firm, Jones Swanson Hubbell & Garrison; J. Rock Palermo, a major donor to Edwards and a partner of Veron's in the Lake Charles firm Veron Bice Palermo & Wilson; and Jim Swanson of the New Orleans firm Fishman Haygood Phelps Walmsley Willis & Swanson.