Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards asked that people stay at home this weekend because of the historic rain and flood event.

Mark Ballard

Some reporter once asked then-Gov. Edwin Edwards to explain how come he handed out so many jobs to his friends.

“What am I supposed to do?” Edwards replied. “Hand out jobs to my enemies?”

Our current, unrelated, governor shares Edwin's surname, but not his gift for spontaneous candor. John Bel Edwards' executive counsel, Matthew Block, says Taylor Townsend got that fat contract purely on account of his legal skills. Nobody from one end of Louisiana to the other will believe that.

Townsend, like John Bel Edwards, is a former state rep. Townsend co-chaired Edwards' transition and keeps the contributions coming as head of his super PAC. His Natchitoches law practice handles criminal defense and personal injury cases.

Now he has been tapped to represent the state in lawsuits filed by coastal parishes seeking redress for the destruction of wetlands by oil and gas companies. Townsend and the attorneys he has taken on to assist him gave Edwards $130,000 last year, but they'll figure to get much more than that in fees, especially if they win.

And maybe they will win; a couple of Townsend's subcontractors actually do have experience of litigation over environmental damaged caused by pipelines and canals.

That the novice Townsend has been chosen to lead the charge is the latest evidence that the spoils system is no less the lifeblood of politics than it was when Edwin Edwards' friends ran the show. But this time there is a hitch, for Attorney General Jeff Landry, whose approval is required whenever the state hires outside counsel, refuses to sign on.

Not that Landry is on his high horse about using the state payroll for the benefit of political supporters. He won the runoff election last fall with the endorsement of the third-place finisher in the primary election, Geri Baloney, whose daughter had pleaded guilty in 1999 to three felony counts. Landry found an appropriate home for the daughter by giving her a job in his fraud section.

Landry's chief deputy, Wilbur Stiles III, alleges in a letter to Block that the contract drawn up between Townsend and the state is “in direct violation of statutory law.” If that is true, the claim that Townsend was selected solely for his legal expertise takes a further knock.

And it sure looks true to the layman who reads the relevant state law, which says the state cannot hire contract lawyers on contingency, but must pay them an hourly rate. The contract with Townsend's group does specify a $225-per-hour rate, but provides for extra payment “from the gross recovery.” The law states that “any recovery or award of attorney's fees.....belongs to the state.” Thus, if Townsend and his pals were to win and grab a share of the loot, they would have been paid both hourly and by means of a contingency arrangement.

Block says Townsend et al believe the law can be interpreted to allow this, but the more objective view would be that the statute means what it plainly says.

Landry has other reservations about the contract, which Stiles says is “too vague and overly broad,” He also notes that the state would be joining litigation brought by parishes that are represented by members of Townsend's team, who would thus be guilty of a conflict of interest.

Landry no doubt relishes making life difficult for Edwards, for the two seem destined to feud forever. Block is clearly irritated and says Landry is overplaying his hand. “Once minimum qualifications are met,” Block, says, “it is not for the attorney general to decide who represents the Department of Natural Resources.”

But if the attorney general could not block a contract he deemed illegal, there wouldn't be much point in requiring his approval in the first place.

It is hardly surprising that the administration wants to help Townsend et al extract maximum moolah from their coastal efforts. This Gov. Edwards, like the old one, knows what friends are for.