Gov. John Bel Edwards and Attorney General Jeff Landry

Gov. John Bel Edwards and Attorney General Jeff Landry

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry don’t agree on much. The two have vastly different political views and are in a near-constant state of disagreement over everything from health care to LGBTQ rights and budgeting.

Yet when the two officials reached an agreement last year to let Landry take the reins on Louisiana’s lawsuit against opioid companies, they also agreed they would each pick several attorneys to handle the case.

Since that agreement, that list has grown to at least 17 law firms, including several that are politically connected, according to documents released in response to a public records request.

Caroline Fayard, a New Orleans lawyer and previously a Democratic candidate for multiple offices; Tony Clayton, a former Southern University Board of Supervisors member; James Garner, a former lawyer for David Vitter; and Ravi Sangisetty, a Democratic candidate for state Rep. Neil Abramson’s seat in the Louisiana House, are all among the attorneys hired to help handle Louisiana’s suit.

The list includes campaign donors to both Edwards and Landry, but also includes an unexpected twist: Landry chose Mike Moore, the Democratic former attorney general of Mississippi, to lead the team of lawyers. Edwards picked Garner, a longtime Republican. Several of the attorneys are also experts in complex litigation, something the governor pointed out.

While those two hirings originally happened before the détente between the two men, Landry's office signed off on the contracts last year, after the deal to let Landry head up the suit was made official in February. 

Gail McKay, a Baton Rouge lawyer and donor to both Landry and Edwards; Domoine Rutledge, a former lawyer for East Baton Rouge schools and current general counsel at CSRS Inc.; and Bruce Burglass, a Metairie lawyer and donor to both officials’ campaigns, are also on the list. Dan Robin Sr., a top Edwards donor, was also hired last year. 

Wells Watson, of Baggett McCall in Lake Charles; Frank Dudenhefer, of New Orleans; Dan Foley, of New Orleans; Jay Ward, of Hood & Felder; Jennifer Connolly, of Baron & Budd; Steve Murray, of New Orleans; and John Davidson of Davidson Bowie in Mississippi, are also representing the state in the case. 

Edwards and Landry’s office say campaign donations did not play a role in the hiring of the attorneys. Sally Shushan, a former U.S. magistrate judge and now a partner in a New Orleans law firm that does work on complex cases, is one of seven lawyers on the list who did not donate to either Edwards or Landry.  

“There’s no politics in this issue,” said Chief Deputy Attorney General Wilbur "Bill" Stiles, pointing to Landry’s hiring of Moore, a Democrat who donated to Landry for the first time last year. “This is a crisis of great importance and magnitude for the people.”

Stiles defended the large number of lawyers as necessary for such a complex and important case. He said Landry’s office took input from Edwards on several of the picks, evidence the two are setting aside their differences for the good of the state. 

The hiring of private attorneys to handle potentially lucrative cases has long drawn scrutiny in Louisiana. Richard Ieyoub, the attorney general of Louisiana during the tobacco litigation, faced criticism during a later gubernatorial run for a $600 million payout to 17 private law firms.

Former AG Buddy Caldwell faced similar complaints for doling out big contracts to lawyers who were top campaign donors — something Landry hammered him on during a 2015 election campaign that saw the incumbent Caldwell fall to the more conservative former congressman.

This time, the contracts are structured differently. Instead of a contingency fee, where lawyers get a cut of any future payouts, Landry’s office hired the attorneys on an hourly basis. That’s mainly because of a 2014 law passed by the Legislature banning such contingency agreements, which came in response to Caldwell’s dealings with private lawyers and similar arrangements from previous administrations. 

Landry's office hired the attorneys on an hourly basis because Landry ran against contingency fee arrangements, Stiles said. 

Dane Ciolino, a Loyola Law School professor, has long pilloried deals where private attorneys win huge cuts of state settlement dollars. When Landry first took office, he consulted with Ciolino about how to handle hiring private attorneys for state lawsuits.

The way Landry has structured the contracts in the opioid case is “pretty much the right way to do it,” Ciolino said.

The rates being charged by the lawyers are “significantly” higher than typical rates paid by attorneys general, he said. But the opioid lawsuits are set up far differently from the tobacco settlements, where private attorneys took a payout directly from the tobacco firms and avoided the need for approval by lawmakers for their fees, he said.

The contracts and invoices released to The Advocate after a public records request show the state has paid out about $300,000 to private attorneys in the case so far. Moore is working for $485 an hour, while the other two lead attorneys are paid $350 an hour. 

All the law firms serving as co-counsels were signed onto the case between March and August of last year, with most contracts inked in July. 

Stiles said the money to pay the attorneys is coming from a legal fund set up in 2014 that uses some of the settlement dollars won by the attorney general's office to pay for big cases like this. 

He projects the state will pay between $3 million and $5 million on the case. While it could be more, he is confident the state will recover that money in litigation. He estimates there is a 50-50 chance the companies will settle with Louisiana in the coming months. 

Edwards also said the case is "starting to progress." 

"This is one of the areas where the attorney general and I were able to come to an agreement, put together a team in order to prosecute the case on Louisiana's behalf," Edwards said. 

The governor said he picked lawyers based on "who was prepared to lead the litigation" and denied campaign contributions played a role. 

Ten of the 19 attorneys donated to Edwards or to Gumbo PAC, a political action committee that supports the Democratic governor, according to Louisiana Board of Ethics records. Five of those lawyers also donated to Landry's campaign. 

Local governments, which aren’t bound by the state law that bans contingency fees, are free to offer private lawyers a cut of settlement dollars as payment. In Baton Rouge, for instance, the city hired Burton Leblanc, an attorney at Baron & Budd, with the promise of a 25% payout of whatever settlement the city may get in its lawsuit against opioid companies.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office did not respond to questions about how its opioid lawsuit is structured.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com