Gov. Edwards instructs administration to intervene in parish coastal suits against oil and gas companies _lowres

Advocate staff photo by Brenden Neville --  State and federal scientists and officials inspect a recently formed marsh island, part of a freshwater diversion project to counteract coastal erosion, during a tour for federal and state coastal restoration representatives hosted by Plaquemines Parish on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2011, in Venice.

If there’s to be a big payday for attorneys in the complex web of lawsuits seeking to hold oil and gas companies accountable for damage to Louisiana’s coast, one of the firms that could be in line to collect is the Block Law Firm.

Lafourche Parish has retained the Thibodaux-based firm, which often has done government work, to represent its interests in the coastal litigation. The parish has yet to file suit, however, and Lafourche officials aren’t sure they will.

What makes Block’s hiring noteworthy is that, until less than a year ago, the firm was owned by Matthew Block, now Gov. John Bel Edwards’ executive counsel. Since January, when Block was named to that post, the owner has been Jerald Block, his father and former longtime law partner.

While there’s no evidence to suggest the Edwards administration played any role in getting the Block firm hired, the governor's actions have unarguably given the potentially lucrative litigation a major boost.

Edwards has encouraged all 20 of the eligible coastal parishes to file their own lawsuits and has said the state will take the lead in parishes that choose not to file, a group that could include Lafourche.

The administration’s aim is to negotiate a global settlement with all of the defendants — a deal that it argues would both help fund Louisiana’s master plan for rebuilding the coast and at the same time help the oil and gas industry by finally wiping a liability of unknown magnitude off companies' books.

Given the scope of the damage and the deep pockets of the industry, a settlement potentially could end up in the billions of dollars. 

State law bars lawyers representing the state from receiving fees calculated as a percentage of a settlement, requiring that they be paid based on the hours they worked instead. While the lawyers hired by parishes so far have not been given contracts that guarantee them any specific percentage of the take, they face no legal limit on what they can earn.

Given the potential size of a settlement, any fees awarded by a judge could be sizable.

Greg Smith, a professor at the LSU Law School and an expert on legal ethics, said he doesn’t know of any provision in the state’s Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers that would prohibit Jerald Block from representing a co-plaintiff of the state’s. And there’s no reason to think it would present a conflict of interest for the lawyers, Smith said, given that the state and the parishes will have similar or identical aims in the coastal litigation.

Edwards also said he doesn’t see how the arrangement presents any ethical dilemma.

“Ultimately, if the litigation is successful … and there’s a recovery for Lafourche Parish, it isn’t like that recovery comes at the expense of the state, or vice versa,” Edwards said in an interview. “And Matthew Block has no interest in the results of that litigation as it relates to his (former) firm,” because he no longer has any ownership in the firm.

Jerald Block said he fully thought through the ramifications of taking on a client with a stake in a major set of lawsuits that also involve his son. Ultimately, he decided it wasn’t an issue.

“I’m a very careful lawyer,” the elder Block said. “Of course I thought about all of the potential implications.”

Jerald Block noted that the state and Lafourche Parish could disagree on aspects of the litigation. But if that happens, the Blocks both said they are prepared to advocate for their respective clients.

“There may be a very necessary division of responsibility between the state and the parishes in connection with this case,” Jerald Block said. “If there is, then I’m prepared to represent Lafourche Parish. My job is simple: to represent Lafourche Parish to the best of my ability. And that’s what I intend to do. “

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The Louisiana Code of Governmental Ethics might have prevented the Edwards administration from hiring Jerald Block because of his family ties to the governor’s counsel, but experts said that prohibition would not extend to his hiring by the parish.

Edwards and Matthew Block emphasized that neither they nor anyone in the administration urged Lafourche Parish to hire the Block firm.

On top of that, both Blocks say they have spoken little with each other about the litigation. The senior Block said his communication with the state on the matter has been mostly with Donald Price, a former trial lawyer hired by Edwards to oversee the coastal litigation on behalf of the state Department of Natural Resources.

Both Blocks said they attended a small meeting on the litigation that Attorney General Jeff Landry convened, with the elder Block representing Lafourche Parish and his son representing the state.

In fact, Landry is responsible, at least indirectly, for the Block firm being hired, according to Lafourche Parish President Jimmy Cantrelle.

Cantrelle said the parish hired Block because Landry “said we should have someone to sit at the table in case anything happens.”

He said Block’s job would be “to get as much money as possible for the parish,” adding that he has faith in the ethics of both Blocks.

The oil and gas industry has sought to highlight the connections between the lawyers taking them on and the politicians who have hired them — as well as the potential fee jackpot the lawyers could win in a settlement.

Landry has been perhaps the governor’s most prominent critic of late, and he recently refused to approve proposed contracts with a group of lawyers that includes many Edwards campaign donors.

But even as he spars with the Edwards administration, and Matthew Block in particular, Landry is using the Block Law Firm to represent his office in at least two matters, according to a review of the attorney general’s contracts.

Edwards said that’s probably because “they’re a good law firm and they’ve been a good law firm for a long time. I’m not sure exactly what role they’re playing with the attorney general, but I don’t have anything to criticize either the Block Law Firm or the attorney general for about that arrangement.”

Landry said he hired Block to “sift through” a raft of pharmaceutical cases the state was involved in, allowing the attorney general to cancel contracts with other law firms.

“He’s done a great job for me, I’ll tell you that,” Landry said.

Cantrelle said he’s not worried about the parish’s choice of lawyers. If a problem or potential conflict arises as the litigation slogs along, he said, he’s confident Jerald Block will speak up.

“I’m sure Mr. Block would not get into a compromising position,” Cantrelle added. “They are both good people.”

Staff writer Tyler Bridges contributed to this report.

Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @GordonRussell1.