Cost of abortion clinic lawsuit continues to rise; contract benefits Louisiana legislator _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Gov. Bobby Jindal, left, and Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, talk to the media about the religious freedom bill sponsored by Rep. Johnson.

A contract that pays a state legislator for legal services related to a federal lawsuit over abortion clinic restrictions is getting more costly.

An amendment to the deal, awaiting final approval, will increase the maximum contract amount to $750,000 — seven times the original $100,000 ceiling.

The Jindal administration has signed off on the change to the contract with Duncan PLLC, a Washington, D.C., law firm headed by S. Kyle Duncan. State Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Benton, is working as co-counsel.

State law generally bans legislators and certain other officials from entering into a contract with state government. But there is an exception when contracts are entered into prior to the official taking office, which Johnson said applies to his situation. But Johnson also questions whether the law even applies to him since he is a subcontractor.

Johnson said Tuesday that he has not yet formally asked state ethics officials for an opinion regarding his situation but plans to do so. “It simply got off my radar,” he said.

The contract runs from Aug. 22, 2014, until June 30, 2017, for legal services related to a lawsuit over the constitutionality of a state law requiring physicians performing abortions to have admitting privileges to a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic where services are provided. The pact covers legal representation through appeals.

The case was argued this summer in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge. A decision is in the hands of U.S. District Court Judge John deGravelles. Johnson said deGravelles indicated at a status conference Monday that parties should not look for his ruling any sooner than mid-October.

Legal bills have already reached the $400,000 contract amount, according to state records. The legal firm continues to do work that will be invoiced after the go-ahead is given to the additional funds, state Department of Health and Hospitals spokeswoman Olivia Watkins Hwang said. She said the lawyers are “just taking a personal risk by doing work without an agreement.”

Law firm owner Duncan is being paid $385 an hour and Johnson $200 an hour, according to the contract. Johnson is a well-known legal advocate for limiting abortion clinics in Louisiana and has filed complaints over their practices.

The contract contains an Aug. 22, 2014, start date but it did not complete the approval process until Jan. 14, 2015.

Johnson signed up to run in a special January election to fill a vacant House seat. No one else qualified and he was sworn in Feb. 3.

The Duncan contract was amended effective March 10 to increase the maximum legal fee to $400,000.

State ethics administrator Kathleen Allen said she could not comment on Johnson’s specific situation. She said the Ethics Board has not addressed the issue of contract amendments and how they affect the application of the law.

Under state law, contracts entered into prior to legislators and certain others taking office can be completed but not renewed. Those with contracts must report them to state ethics officials. Johnson filed the required report late after news of the contract surfaced. The contract involving Johnson is in place until mid-2017. Just its financial terms are being altered.

“My assumption has been it was all approved and OK for the first round,” Johnson said. “The only question would be if there’s an appeal, if it goes to the next level.” He said he wants to check with ethics officials in the event that situation develops.

Similar cases tried in Mississippi and Texas were both appealed to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which rendered differing rulings. The state’s case is also expected to be appealed.

Follow Marsha Shuler on Twitter, @MarshaShulerCNB. For more coverage from the State Capitol, follow Louisiana politics at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.