Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards is reportedly sending letters to the state's coastal parishes, urging them to join litigation against the oil and gas industry within the next 30 days over decades of alleged environmental damage to wetlands. If they don't, he said the state will sue on their behalf.
But critics, including Louisiana Attorney General (AG) Jeff Landry, say the governor's move is a waste of time and money, especially after a state court tossed a wetlands damage lawsuit last month. Landry also said a contract between Edwards and several outside attorneys is illegal, and others have accused the Democrat of cronyism.
Edwards told several media outlets on Wednesday that his administration wants all of the coastal parishes to join four others that have already filed suit.
"We are going to pursue the litigation so that there's a timely but successful resolution, particularly for the parishes along the coast, because this is just too important," Edwards told The Advocate of Baton Rouge, LA. He also told WWL-TV that he had tried to negotiate a settlement with the oil and gas industry over the wetlands damage, but "they didn't express much interest in continuing to talk. So, as I said I would do, we are going to move forward with the litigation."
Four parishes -- Cameron, Jefferson, Plaquemines and Vermillion -- have filed a lawsuit against the industry for alleged damage to coastal wetlands (see Daily GPI, July 29). Several others are considering taking legal action.
State AG: Lawsuits a waste of money, contract illegal
In a statement Wednesday, Landry said he did not recommend the filing of any additional lawsuits.
"These matters share the same legal issues, all of which can be addressed in the existing suits," Landry said. "The only thing additional lawsuits do is raise the cost of litigation, keeping the legal meter running unnecessarily. Ultimately, the more money wasted in litigation is less money going to the coast...
"I believe our citizens demand that we find a way to balance the tremendous benefits of the oil and gas industry with a solution to our coastal crisis."
Last month, a lawsuit filed by Jefferson Parish over wetlands damage was dismissed by the state's 24th Judicial District Court. Landry has said he accepts the court's ruling because it would be more cost-effective to address issues associated with permit violations through the administrative process, specifically through the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
"As the case stands currently, it has been dismissed in Jefferson Parish as being premature," Landry said. "Until that issue is brought to final disposition, likely in the [state] Supreme Court, other lawsuits would be a waste of money. We have repeatedly conveyed to the coastal parishes that litigation beyond those already filed is counter-productive."
Landry added that his office contacted the governor's mansion several weeks ago with concerns over a proposed contract with several outside attorneys. One concern is that the contract "constitutes an illegal contingency fee agreement.
"We have yet to hear a response from the parties who proposed it."
According to the nonpartisan, nonprofit group Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch (LLAW), Edwards' contract is with former state Rep. Taylor Townsend (D-Natchitoches) and six attorneys he brought in as subcontractors. LLAW said Townsend co-chaired the governor's transition team and currently heads Edwards' super PAC fundraising committee, Louisiana Families First.
"There is a perception that the governor is turning his office into a private law firm," said LLAW Director Melissa Landry, who is no relation to the attorney general. "[Edwards] is quietly handing no-bid legal contracts to his campaign supporters."
Industry: Governor 's actions 'alarming'
The Louisiana Oil & Gas Association (LOGA) and the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association (LMOGA) issued a joint statement Wednesday, calling Edwards' letter to the parishes "an obvious attempt" to deflect criticism over his contract with the attorneys.
"Major newspapers in Louisiana have published a slew of editorials and columns calling on Gov. Edwards to make good on his ethics pledge and stop the system of good ol' boy government that seems to be flourishing under his administration," the organizations said. "Many citizens have raised concerns about cronyism and political patronage as well.
"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."
LOGA and LMOGA added that Edwards already has a tool at his disposal: the Louisiana State and Local Coastal Resources Management Act of 1978. Under that state law, DNR's Office of Coastal Management has the power to levy fines and penalties against the oil and gas industry for violations to state permits, but without producing "billions in legal fees."
"Whatever their outcome, these lawsuits are not a funding mechanism for state or local government budgets and they will not help protect the coast," LOGA and LMOGA said. "On the contrary, they divert critical time and resources away from the industry's support of Louisiana's coastal restoration efforts, which have been under way for decades...These efforts would be better supported and strengthened through collaboration, not litigation."