T. Taylor Townsend

T. Taylor Townsend is a lawyer from Natchitoches

Stewing since the unlikely election last fall of a Democrat to Louisiana’s highest office, conservative critics pounced when it emerged a month ago that Gov. John Bel Edwards had named a top fundraiser to oversee a controversial lawsuit blaming the oil and gas industry for destroying much of the coast.

The Louisiana Republican Party accused Edwards of dishing out a big contract to “campaign cronies” and, using the Twitter hashtag #dishonorcode, mocked a key Edwards campaign slogan from last year.

Edwards, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger, rode the political equivalent of a white horse into the Governor’s Mansion by repeatedly pledging his allegiance to the military academy’s Honor Code, questioning his opponent’s ethics and promising to always “put Louisiana first.”

But the straight-arrow governor has been on the defensive since launching the lawsuit — which brings together politics, law and money in a combustible mix — and hiring Taylor Townsend, 53, a trial attorney and former state House member from Natchitoches, to oversee it.

Critics focused on the report that Townsend raised money for Edwards last year and was later named to head the outside super PAC supporting the governor.

Townsend has 26 years of work as a trial attorney, but the critics also noted that he has little experience trying complex cases alleging environmental damage by oil and gas companies.

A typical broadside came from Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, which co-hosted a fundraiser for the governor in January in an apparently failed effort to win influence. “I believe he was chosen — like many others tied to the litigation — simply because of the cronyism and the contributions they made to his campaign,” Briggs said.

Both Edwards and Townsend dismiss aspersions on Townsend’s hiring.

“There is nothing dishonorable about hiring a qualified, competent attorney who happens to be a friend and supporter,” Edwards said in a telephone interview. “Since when am I obligated to do business with people who don’t support me? His knowledge of the law and his experience in the courtroom and his knowledge and familiarity with state government make him an ideal choice to perform the role.”

Said Townsend, who has mostly ducked the media because of what he considers to be unfair coverage: “The governor trusts my legal acumen, and he trusts me. I can tell you that I trust him. He and I have assembled the best team that can prosecute this case.”

Though he has often handled complex lawsuits, Townsend readily admits that he has tried only a few cases that have anything to do with erosion or damage to land.

His role with the coastal suits is not to be the expert, he said. Rather, he said, Edwards hired him to provide legal and political strategy to oversee the cases and the four law firms that will be in the trenches.

“There are a thousand moving parts to this litigation,” he said. “My job is to make sure these lawyers are doing what is needed to protect the state of Louisiana from further coastal erosion and to do what is in the best interests of the state.”

The close relationship between Townsend and Edwards is a new one. The two say they knew each other in passing from trial-lawyer and political circles but got to know each other well only during last year’s campaign, when Edwards upset conventional wisdom by defeating Sen. David Vitter, the Republican favorite.

Townsend said he was not part of the inner circle that advised candidate Edwards on a day-to-day basis. Instead, Townsend visited with Edwards when the candidate traveled to the Natchitoches area, where the attorney serves as a go-to rainmaker for Democratic candidates.

Townsend said he co-hosted two fundraisers for Edwards last year in Natchitoches — one before the primary, another before the runoff — and brought in what he said was “tens of thousands of dollars.”

Campaign finance reports show that he and his family alone gave $25,000 to Edwards during the governor’s race and another $5,000 for the post-election transition.

After he won, Edwards named Townsend one of the six chairs of his transition team. And afterward, Townsend was asked to take over Edwards' super PAC, Louisiana Families First. He said it has turned out to be a non-job because the group has not raised or spent any money during his tenure and will soon be disbanded.

High-stakes legal and political battles aren’t on the resumés of most small-town lawyers. For Townsend, the entrée into that world came through his uncle, Don Kelly, who served in the state Senate from 1976 through 1996 and had such a keen grasp of politics and power that he served as a floor leader for whoever was governor.

Townsend, who had grown up in Coushatta, went to live with Kelly in Natchitoches while in ninth grade after his parents divorced. Kelly not only helped raise him but gave him a taste for politics, beginning with a summer job at the state Capitol when Townsend was 15.

Townsend went on to graduate from Northwestern State University and the Southern University Law School — a less prestigious pedigree than most of the high-dollar lawyers he’s supervising in the coastal litigation.

“Just because you come from a small town and go to a not-prestigious school doesn’t mean you can’t be a good lawyer,” he said.

Ronald Corkern, a Natchitoches attorney who has often faced off against Townsend in the courtroom — with Townsend usually representing an injured plaintiff and Corkern an insurance company — said Townsend stands out for his courtroom demeanor.

“He has charisma in the courtroom,” Corkern said. “He understands the language that non-lawyers speak. He is able to speak to jurors especially in a language they understand. He can laugh at himself. Jurors then have a tendency to associate with those people since they are real. In a jury trial, you better hope they like you. If they don’t, they won’t like your client.”

In 1999, four years after his uncle chose not to seek re-election, Townsend ran for the state House, over the objections of Kelly and his mother.

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“My uncle begged me not to run,” Townsend said. “My mother cried. Neither one of them wanted me involved in politics.”

Kelly had served with the longtime House incumbent, Jimmy Long, for 20 years in the Legislature. His mother didn’t want her son to face the slings and arrows that come with running for office and serving.

“You know, politics divides communities and people,” Townsend said.

He decided to challenge Long, in part, he said, because the incumbent had supported “tort reform” — a series of new restrictions on trial attorneys' lawsuits pushed through the Legislature by Gov. Mike Foster.

Townsend won the race and breezed to re-election in 2003. He excelled at the inside game, bringing home what he estimates was $75 million to $100 million in funding and infrastructure projects for Natchitoches and Northwestern State.

Townsend gives Kelly the credit for much of his political success .

Among his uncle’s insights: “While debate is the lifeblood of that place, compromise is the soul,” Townsend said. “If you go to the Legislature not willing to compromise and not willing to understand the needs of other constituents through their elected representatives, you’re doomed for failure.”

During his eight years in the House, in the battles that often pit business groups against trial lawyers, Townsend sided with trial attorneys, as well as unions. His positions earned him a 38 percent voting record with the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry during those two terms. That score put him among the bottom 15 to 20 percent of lawmakers on LABI’s scorecard.

In 2007, Townsend chose not to seek re-election and instead ran for an open state Senate seat. Gerald Long, Jimmy Long’s younger brother, evened the score by defeating Townsend, aided by major donations from business groups. Long, a Republican from Winnfield, still holds the seat.

“My politics didn’t fit with the voters at that time,” Townsend said, shrugging off the loss. “I was a Democrat. Democrats weren’t popular.”

By the time he lost the election, Townsend had already gotten a payout from one big legal case. Kelly, his law partner, was an adviser to the Castano Group of attorneys that settled a huge class-action lawsuit on behalf of the state and smokers against tobacco companies. Some 60 law firms split a reported $114 million.

The amount that went to the Kelly Townsend law firm is not clear, but they were not major players, said Russ Herman, a veteran New Orleans trial attorney who was one of the lead lawyers in the case,

“Financially, we did well in the case because we were successful,” Townsend said. “I can’t give you the numbers off the top of my head.”

Townsend now practices law by himself. He specializes in personal injury cases, including workplace accidents, “slip and fall” cases and medical malpractice, according to his website.

“In many ways, it’s fulfilling to know that you’re fighting for these people,” Townsend said. “You’re the only person who has taken up the cudgel for them and is pursuing the cause. If you prevail, there’s a lot of satisfaction in that.”

Townsend said he had no interest in representing insurance companies.

“They’ve been the people I’ve generally fought against for the last 26 years,” he said.

Now his targets are the oil and gas companies, which, according to the lawsuits, got state permits to drill and explore for oil but violated the permits by failing to restore the wetlands they destroyed. The governor hopes the litigation will force oil and gas companies to agree to a settlement that would yield billions of dollars to restore the state's disappearing coast.

Townsend is captaining the legal team, said Donald Price, a veteran trial attorney now at the Department of Natural Resources who is serving as the Edwards administration’s point man on the lawsuit.

“Taylor won’t write the briefs, draft petitions or take the depositions,” Price said. “He’ll be parceling that work out to those who are best able to handle it."

Critics charge that greed rather than altruism drives Townsend and his cohorts in the coastal suits.

“They are motivated by (the) allure of driving a new Mercedes to the coast with the proceeds of this lawsuit,” U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, said in a recent letter to Edwards.

Critics also say that the attorneys, many of whom donated generously to Edwards last year, are positioned to raise even greater sums for his re-election campaign.

Townsend acknowledged he is getting good money — $225 per hour — compared with everyday wages in Louisiana, but noted that he is receiving far less than the maximum of $500 an hour that the law allows lawyers representing the state to be paid. He also noted that he doesn’t know when or whether he will get paid because the Legislature hasn’t yet appropriated any money for it.

Townsend added that the other private attorneys will get paid only if they win the case. Under a so-called “fee shifting” arrangement, a judge or the Legislature would have to decide how much they would receive.

“I reject the notion that it’s cronyism in any form whatsoever,” Townsend said. “The right word here is courage — the governor’s courage to assemble a great legal team without regard to politics, and most importantly his courage to fight this fight to save dozens of coastal communities, their citizens, their culture and their businesses. The governor’s courage trumps cronyism every hour of every day of the week.”

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.