Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry is refusing to approve a contract Gov. John Bel Edwards signed with his chief fundraiser to lead a team of attorneys and represent the state in lawsuits against the oil and gas industry over coastal land loss.
In a letter to Edwards’ executive counsel Tuesday, Landry’s top aide says the Attorney General’s Office finds the contract between the governor’s office and Taylor Townsend, who runs Edwards' Super PAC, “unacceptable on multiple grounds.”
Landry’s gambit is the latest flareup in an increasingly bitter dispute between the two statewide officials — Edwards, a Democrat, and Landry, a Republican who many see as a potential challenger to Edwards in 2020.
It may also signal a widening gulf over how to hold oil and gas companies accountable for contributing to the destruction of Louisiana's coast. Several dozen lawsuits have been brought by four coastal parishes that say canals and pipelines dug by the industry are at least partially responsible for the loss of land.
The attorney general’s office intervened in the suits in March, a couple of months after Landry was sworn in. The governor, through the Department of Natural Resources, intervened a few weeks later, and initially, Edwards and Landry appeared to be on the same page. But the harmony didn’t last.
WWL-TV and The New Orleans Advocate reported last week on the contract Edwards signed Aug. 5 with Townsend, a lawyer from Natchitoches who once served as a state representative and now runs the governor’s Super PAC. Townsend, a personal injury lawyer, has hired six other lawyers as subcontractors, some of whom have experience in coastal litigation.
The story noted that the seven lawyers had been enrolled in one of the several dozen pending coastal lawsuits, but that the governor’s office had agreed to remove them from the cases because the attorney general had not yet agreed to their appointment. State law gives the attorney general the authority to approve the appointment of all lawyers who represent the state.
But Matthew Block, Edwards’ executive counsel, made clear in an interview at the time that he regarded the removal of the lawyers as a procedural hiccup, and that he intended to have them enrolled in all of the coastal suits in the near future.
Block said the lawyers were enrolled in a hurry after a judge threw out the first case, which had been brought by Jefferson Parish.
The judge wrote that the plaintiffs — including the state Department of Natural Resources — hadn’t exhausted all other available legal remedies. Landry’s office issued a news release saying the attorney general agreed with the judge; the governor wanted to challenge it, with the help of the team of lawyers led by Townsend.
Now, it’s not clear where things are headed.
Among other issues, Tuesday’s letter from Chief Deputy Attorney General Wilbur Stiles III to Block says the contract’s scope is “entirely too vague and overly broad” because it does not seem to limit Townsend’s representation to the matter at hand.
The letter also says the method of paying the lawyers laid out in the contract appears to be “in direct violation of statutory law,” which the letter says requires that lawyers be paid hourly rather than based on some sort of contingency or percentage basis.
State law prohibits private lawyers from being paid on a contingency-fee basis unless expressly approved by the Legislature. Former Attorney General Buddy Caldwell got around that prohibition by paying outside attorneys using so-called “fee-shifting” provisions in specific statutes, allowing those lawyers to collect legal fees from the defendants after a settlement or judgment, above and beyond what the state recovered.
But in a series of reports by WWL-TV in 2013 and 2014, Loyola Law Professor Dane Ciolino argued that arrangement violated the state Ethics Code, which does not allow third parties to pay for work done on behalf of the state. Landry has adopted that position, calling the payment proposed in the Townsend contract “unconstitutional.”
And the letter also suggests that some of the lawyers involved may have conflicts of interest because they are already contracted to represent “local governmental bodies” in coastal lawsuits. It says they cannot represent the state at the same time.
In an interview last week, Block expressed annoyance at the attorney general’s intransigence with regard to appointment of lawyers by the governor, calling it “a tremendous waste of time and resources.”
Louisiana law is vague on how deeply involved the attorney general should be in vetting the governor’s selections of legal counsel. But Block says the AG’s role should be minimal.
Once “minimum qualifications” are met, “it’s not for the Attorney General to decide who represents the Department of Natural Resources or any other board or commission,” Block said. He added that Landry “is not doing what has been done by previous attorneys general.”
Timmy Teepell, who was chief of staff for Gov. Bobby Jindal, said that his practice was always to consult with the attorney general before making legal appointments to make sure the AG was on board.
"From our eight years there, and the conversations I had with people in the Foster administration, it was, 'Hey, make sure you work out your business with the attorney general beforehand or you’re gonna get sideways with them,'" Teepell said. "We always had those conversations ahead of time."
Of course, the relationship between Jindal's office and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell was not as acrimonious as that between Landry and Edwards. Block said he believes litigation may be necessary to clarify the scope of the AG’s role in appointing counsel.
“If it comes to that, we’re going to have to have somebody pursue some sort of action to have a decision as to what role the Attorney General should have or should not have in the appointment of counsel,” he said.