Eddie Rispone, the wealthy Baton Rouge businessman-turned-GOP candidate for governor, finds his campaign in a bit of a dust-up over a West Baton Rouge billboard slogan.

“I bought this billboard so the injury lawyers couldn’t,” Rispone announces in bold, dark letters on the sign, right next to a photo of the white-haired candidate smiling in a suit, his arms crossed casually.

The billboard had been there for a month, the winking phrase and the smiling candidate looking down on the motorists chugging along the interstate toward the Mississippi River bridge, when the Rispone campaign got a letter from a lawyer accusing them of plagiarism and asking them to take it down.

Last summer, a Lafayette advertising agency called Burning Stick Creative put up a billboard for a lawyer who used a cheeky phrase that singled out a prominent Baton Rouge personal injury lawyer, whose folded arms image is on a prolific number of billboards around the state: “We bought this billboard so that Gordon McKernan couldn’t.” The phrasing and look of Rispone's billboard is too close to last summer's advertisement, the letter alleges.

So, is a single billboard what’s at stake? Just one outdoor sign in a race for governor that’ll see millions spent on advertising in hopes of swaying potential voters?

Not if you ask the Rispone campaign. They see something a bit bigger, and more sinister, at play.

The demand to take down the billboard was “a calculated political attack” designed to “smear” the Republican candidate by the “cabal” of injury attorneys who’ve lined up behind sitting Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, Rispone campaign communications director Anthony Ramirez wrote in an acerbic, defiant response mailed Friday. Ramirez closed the letter by vowing that “we will not take the billboard down.”

The Rispone campaign’s response on Friday contended the First Amendment protected the campaign’s use of the phrase as political speech and satire. The billboard, Ramirez wrote, was designed to mock and parody the “sad state of Louisiana’s legal system.” 

Ramirez pointed out the lawyer who penned the letter, Charles Brandt, is himself an Edwards supporter. The complaint over the billboard slogan is a “veiled attempt” by Edwards “to attack his opponent’s campaign, Ramirez charged.

“Absolutely not,” Brandt said by phone on Friday. “It's got nothing to do with Edwards. I didn't even think how it might impact on the Edwards campaign, that didn't occur to me.”

Brandt acknowledges he supports the current governor, but said he had no intention of causing a political fracas with the letter.

It just happens that Burning Stick Creative also handles all the advertising for Brandt & Sherman, Brandt said, so when the agency’s founder, Amy Jones, asked him to fire off a letter, he happily agreed.

“I'm not going to attack Eddie Rispone. I don't know who he is or what qualities he has. He may make a fine governor,” Brandt said. “I was just representing Burning Stick. They're my advertising agency.”

“I'm chuckling that the Rispone campaign took that as a way to attack the person who wrote the letter rather than the person who made the complaint,” said Jones, who runs Burning Stick Creative as CEO. “It's ridiculous.”

Jones said she was simply cheesed when she saw Rispone “ripped off” her billboard — which she said stirred up a lot of buzz around her firm and “went viral” online — with a near-identical joke. Jones noted Rispone’s tagline varied only a couple of words from hers, swapping out McKernan’s name to make a more general swipe at the profession.

“If you're running for governor, it might help if you show you can come up with original ideas,” said Jones, who said she’s regularly done political advertising work — including for Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser and former Congressman Charles Boustany, both Republicans, as well as for local candidates from both parties around Lafayette — but never for Edwards.

Gov. Edwards’ re-election campaign also denied playing any role in Rispone’s billboard imbroglio.

Ramirez, to punctuate his contention the billboard spat was really a political hit job on Rispone by the governor’s backers, highlighted just over $100,000 in donations from Brandt & Sherman, its attorneys and other lawyers and firms using the same Mercury Street address in Lafayette, a total that includes a handful of contributions as far back as 2010, when Edwards was a state representative from Amite.

Louisiana Democrats have for years drawn deep-pocketed support from lawyers who represent injured plaintiffs, in part because Republicans — more often backed by insurance companies and business interests — have loudly called for so-called “tort reform” to cut down on lawsuits and court-ordered payouts.

Rispone’s disputed billboard went up just as the Louisiana Legislature prepared to grapple over a series of bills that’d change how courts handle injury claims. The Republican backers of the measures argue the changes to the courts could eventually lower the state’s high car insurance rates while opponents say they’d leave those hurt in accidents at an unfair disadvantage to the insurance companies.

A pair of Republican state lawmakers also fought to impose limits on the number of billboards in the state. The proposal’s backers, Metairie state Sen. Conrad Appel and Jonesboro state Rep. Jack McFarland, described it as an effort to cut down on unsightly “clutter” along roads that might distract drivers.

But their bills, which were both quickly killed by legislative committees, were widely seen as an attack on personal injury lawyers that extensively use billboards to recruit clients. Trucking firms also pushed for the ban, arguing they felt “demonized” by law firm ads targeting those hurt in wrecks with big rigs.

Eric Holl, an Edwards campaign spokesman, quickly noted that Rispone had received donations “from the very ‘trial lawyers’ he claims to despise,” pointing to a recent $1,000 contribution from McKernan and another $5,000 check from the Whaley Law Firm, another Baton Rouge personal injury group.


Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.