A Baton Rouge jury awarded a whistleblower $750,000 because the state Department of Natural Resources retaliated against him for reporting a state-funded dredging project that helped landowners develop oil-and-gas leases.
Dan Collins, a Baton Rouge landman, was under contract to the agency as a land research consultant when he reported his concerns about the Bayou Postillion dredging project in Iberia Parish. The water quality improvement project was actually a million-dollar, state-funded oil-and-gas access canal project, Collins said, one that benefitted a family of landowners along the bayou.
The landowners and Natural Resources have steadfastly denied those allegations.
“It reads like a John Grisham novel,” Collins said. “It’s so remarkable. ... It was total obstruction once I uncovered it. It was total obstruction all the way to the top, all the way to the Governor’s Office.”
DNR spokesman Patrick Courreges said the 19th Judicial District jury may have been confused by a trial that was both lengthy and complex.
The department complied with environmental regulations and the state procurement law for contracts, Courreges said. The department is planning to appeal the verdict and feels it has a strong chance of winning the appeal.
Collins said the dredging violated state and federal environmental laws.
But the Natural Resources Department, and then-Secretary Scott Angelle, ignored Collins’ report and allowed the canal to be dredged in the environmentally sensitive Atchafalaya Basin. Instead, the DNR prevented Collins and his company, CPL & Associates Inc., from doing any more work for the agency. Collins was in his 12th consecutive year of consulting work for Natural Resources.
Collins said he brought the information to then-Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal’s transition team in late 2007, the state Attorney General’s Office and the state Legislative Auditor’s Office. But DNR convinced other state officials that the agency’s position was correct.
In 2008, the Atchafalaya Basin Group and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network filed a federal lawsuit against the state. The lawsuit was tossed on the grounds that the environmental groups didn’t have proper standing to file.
Collins’ case went to trial in 19th Judicial District Court last week. On Friday, about 8 p.m., the jury came back with a ruling in his favor.
The jury awarded Collins $250,000 for loss of earnings and/or anticipated earnings, said Crystal Bounds, Collins’ attorney. Under the state’s environmental whistleblower law, Collins is entitled to triple the award, plus attorney’s fees and costs.
“This is a great victory for my client. We are pleased that the jury recognized what had been done by DNR and saw the truth,” Bounds said.
Atchafalaya Basinkeeper Executive Director Dean Wilson said the jury’s verdict and the attention from it will make it easier to prevent the same thing from happening again.
Collins said hearing the jury’s verdict after eight years of struggle was an emotional moment.
He and Bounds had faced a four-person legal team for the Department of Natural Resources, backed by all of the state’s resources and a parade of state witnesses and experts whose job was to discredit Collins.
“It was literally David and Goliath,” Collins said.
Collins said he had a lot more hair and considerably lower stress levels when the legal battle began.
“But I hung in. I hung in. I tell my kids, ‘I’m not very smart. But I’m very tenacious,’ ” Collins said.
Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter, @tedgriggsbr.