Attorney General Jeff Landry has filed a lawsuit against Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration, accusing the governor of improperly blocking a $4 million transfer needed to fund the state Department of Justice.
According to the suit, which was filed in the 19th Judicial District Court Tuesday morning, the Edwards administration has repeatedly refused to sign off on a request that would give the attorney general's office access to money from an escrow fund tied to a 2013 pharmaceutical settlement. The AG's office claims it is the rightful recipient of those funds.
"Receipt of these funds by DOJ is necessary to ensure continuity of operations, to make payroll, to cover expenses of ongoing litigation and to avoid a deficit in the DOJ budget," the AG's office wrote in the lawsuit.
Edwards, who had previously proposed putting the money into the state general fund for other uses, has maintained a position that the fund shouldn't go toward the Department of Justice.
During a special session earlier this year, he asked lawmakers to direct the money elsewhere, but the Republican-controlled House blocked that plan. House leaders said at the time that remaining out of the dispute over the escrow fund was one of the critical pieces they sought in the eventual budget agreement.
In an acerbic statement on his decision to file the lawsuit over access to the fund, Landry accused Edwards of being an "emperor" who is "a predictable and vindictive Washington-style politician more concerned with political points than the people’s business."
“By playing petty partisan politics, the Governor is jeopardizing the operations of the Louisiana Department of Justice," Landry said.
Since taking office last year, Democrat Edwards and Republican Landry have engaged in several rounds of high-profile sparring.
The two are also locked in a legal battle over an executive order that Edwards signed to bar discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in state government based on the sexual orientation or gender identity.
Landry is considered a possible candidate for governor, when Edwards is up for reelection in 2019.
Edwards said in a statement that the media was notified about the latest lawsuit before his office was. He called it "nothing more than another dog and pony show from the Department of Justice."
"Jeff Landry is going to great lengths at the taxpayer’s expense to protect an escrow account that doesn’t belong to his department while the rest of state government is taking a spending cut," Edwards said in a statement. "Only Jeff Landry thinks he should be shielded from any spending cuts while students are at risk of losing TOPS, while higher education is at risk of taking a cut or while lifesaving health care services are in jeopardy."
Liz Murrill, director of the Attorney General's civil division, said that the fund had not become a point of contention in the past.
"This has never been in question until John Bel Edwards wanted to take the money away from us," she said.
She said that the AG's office has repeatedly tried to make its case privately to the Edwards administration, that the Legislature assigned those funds to serve as self-generated revenue to operate the office.
"That part of our budget is not supplied with cash, we have to supply the cash for it," she said.
Edwards said on Tuesday that he had not yet read the lawsuit. He said that Landry "went to the media with a statement before he ever approached me and tried to work this matter out."
“I don’t think there is a basis, at all, for the lawsuit,” Edwards said.
He said he thinks it's "very, very clear" that the money shouldn't go to the attorney general.
Murrill said that the issue isn't over whether the money is considered state funds.
"We've never said they aren't state funds, but they are appropriated to us," she said.
Murrill said state lawmakers passed legislation last year that Edwards signed into law on the use of certain funds funds that specifically eliminated a prior prohibition on the money being used to fund the attorney general's office.
"The language is so clear and unambiguous," she said. "We shouldn't have had to file this lawsuit."
"This is about the easiest decision for a court that it could ever make," Murrill added.
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