070217 BR Aquifer cross-section.jpg

The state Board of Ethics Board has charged three more members of a Baton Rouge-area groundwater commission with conflict-of-interest violations over their service on the state regulatory panel.

These three latest members of the Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission join two others who were charged over the same alleged violation this summer: drawing a salary from a regulated groundwater user while also serving on the board.

The commission's inclusion of industry representatives is a long-standing practice. However, charging documents say these members' service is a violation of an ethics law that bars public servants from receiving a thing of value from a company they regulate.

Commissioners Nelson Morvant, the outgoing chairman of the past two years; Todd Talbot, who heads a critical committee for the commission's activities; and Ronnie Albritton, a commissioner since 2014, were each charged on Nov. 10 by the ethics board.

Morvant works for Entergy, Talbot for ExxonMobil, Albritton for Georgia Pacific, ethics charging documents say.

Each of those publicly traded companies are major users of the Southern Hills Aquifer, which also supplies drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people in the Baton Rouge region, federal studies show. 

The conflict-of-interest charges now affect nearly a third of the 18-member commission designed to conserve the aquifer and granted authority over a six-parish area in Baton Rouge where these companies' wells are located.

The charges challenge the common practice of the more than 45-year-old commission, where industry and public drinking water supply representatives on the groundwater board have often been employees of regulated users.

A state Office of Conservation report in February noted that the chairman of the commission was an employee of a regulated user 80% of the time between 1974 and 2004. The report added that since 2013, "employees of these companies all have either served as board chairman, vice-chairman, or committee chairmen, often multiple times."

Amid worries about salt water intrusion into Baton Rouge's groundwater, that framework has increasingly drawn questions about the influence of industrial users and public drinking water suppliers from environmental groups, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office and the state Office of Conservation, which regulates groundwater use statewide.

In July, Baton Rouge Water Co. executives Ryan Scardina and Dennis McGehee, also a former commission chairman, were charged with the same violations as Morvant, Talbot and Albritton. The private water utility, which is not affiliated with the city-parish government, is the aquifer's largest user, federal studies show.

In leveling accusations of civil ethics violations, the ethics board operates largely in secret, akin to a grand jury, until the charges are brought.

State ethics officials say the men's charges can now go before an administrative law judge to be decided in a public process or be resolved through a settlement, which is also public. 

If found guilty, the men potentially face civil fines and may be forced off the commission to resolve the conflict.

The charges against Scardina and McGehee had been on the ethics board's website but weren't widely known, even on the groundwater commission, until a few weeks ago. 

The Advocate obtained the latest charges against Morvant, Talbot and Albritton through a public records request. Their charges weren't on the ethics website as of late Monday morning.

In a joint statement issued through their employers, Morvant, Talbot and Albritton asserted that the mid-1970s legislation creating the commission "authorizes employees of industry groundwater users to hold seats on the 18-member commission."

"Industry employees have done so for decades, are appointed by the governor as required by the statute and provide valuable technical expertise to the commission," the joint company statement says. "Our employees have served this commission in good faith, and at no time did they act unethically in their service."

The three men haven't previously responded to personal calls for comment or declined to comment when reached. Scardina and McGehee have also previously declined to comment.

Commissioners are nominated by a variety of groups with an economic interest in the Southern Hills Aquifer, which, under the law, is a publicly shared resource: farmers, ranchers, industries, municipal users, state agencies and the parishes. The governor makes all the appointments. Gov. John Bel Edwards has appointed or reappointed each of the five men who have been charged since July, charging documents say.

The commission can set conservation policy for the aquifer and also sets and charges groundwater pumping fees for major users in the service of long-term management goals for the aquifer. The commission also has subpoena power to seek out information from regulated users.

For several years, the commission has come under fire for not acting quickly enough to address gradual salt water intrusion into that aquifer, which is part of the commission's legislative mandate. Environmental groups like Louisiana Environmental Action Network and retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore' have charged that the commission should try to push big industrial users off the aquifer and have them use Mississippi River water for their operations.

The salt water's encroachment into the fresh water source is directly tied to the level of pumping from the aquifer. A shift to the river, however, could be costly and also raise complications in the processes for those companies with access to cleaner groundwater.

In their employers' joint statement, Morvant, Talbot and Albritton added that industrial users of the aquifer remain committed to its long-term conservation and fully support "fact-based scientific data evaluation of the aquifer for future long-term growth."

"Having industry representatives on the commission helps to ensure a technical and scientific approach to groundwater sustainability is achieved," the joint statement says.

The latest charges resolve an open question since the charges against Scardina and McGehee came to light last month. While ethics officials won't say what complaint sparked the charges, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network brought a complaint in May 2019 over the number of commissioners with ties to industrial and drinking water suppliers.

That complaint identified the five commissioners whom the ethics board has since charged and one other, a retired Entergy employee no longer drawing a salary who had not been charged as of Friday, as presenting possible ethics problems.

Marylee Orr, LEAN's executive director, expressed surprise when told last month that the Baton Rouge Water employees were charged, but, at that time, not the industry employees also on the commission.

Over the weekend, she welcomed the latest charges, saying every commissioner's priority should be "the sustainable management of our drinking water."

"If commission members are paid employees of companies regulated by the commission, that seems like an obvious conflict," Orr said. "We are hopeful these ethics charges move the commission towards actions that are best for area residents as a whole, not any individual user."


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.