Louisiana’s struggle to rebuild after last month’s massive flood has placed the state in a national spotlight. That attention — and the goodwill we’ll need from outside Louisiana to move forward — underscores the importance of projecting a progressive image to the rest of the world.
But in the wake of the worst American natural disaster since Superstorm Sandy, Governor John Bel Edwards is indulging in the kind of good ol’ boy government that’s held the state back for generations. This isn’t the way to gain sympathy from outsiders for Louisiana’s recovery.
Edwards has picked prominent political supporters to represent the state’s interests in a lawsuit filed by Jefferson Parish’s local government against various oil and gas companies. The suit, which seeks damages for land loss allegedly caused by energy operations, is one of dozens filed by governments of coastal parishes, and Edwards’ hand-picked legal team could eventually become involved in those other cases, too. What’s more, the governor appears to be supporting a scheme that could give the politically connected attorneys a big payout if a settlement of the cases is reached, deftly detouring the will of the Legislature. Cynics might be forgiven for assuming the worst — that Edwards is in the back pocket of the trial lawyers who so enthusiastically bankrolled his candidacy.
The Edwards administration’s contract for the legal work is with lawyer and former state Rep. Taylor Townsend of Natchitoches, who was co-chairman of the governor’s transition team and now heads Edward’s political action committee, Louisiana Families First. Townsend, his law firm and affiliates, and those of a team of six subcontracted attorneys chipped in $130,000 for the Edwards campaign and the governor’s transition.
Although some of the attorneys on the Townsend team have experience with these kinds of coastal damage cases, Townsend does not. That can only deepen suspicions that Townsend was hired because of who he knows rather than what he knows.
In 2014, the Legislature tried to do something to guard against lavish payouts to politically favored trial lawyers in state litigation against oil and gas companies, approving a law requiring that state government’s legal fees be paid on an hourly basis. The state’s contract calls for paying Townsend and his team $225 per hour, to a maximum of $150,000. But it envisions the attorneys negotiating additional payments from the defendants if a settlement is reached. Given the deep pockets of the oil and gas companies being sued, the payments could be a trial lawyers’ bonanza.
If the companies pay up, the interests of the state may well be secondary to the lawyers’ recouping their costs, and a nice bonus, in the settlement.
But if negotiations break down, will it be because of purely legal concerns, or because Townsend’s team wants to drive the hardest bargain to pad their fees?
The governor appears to have acted legally in awarding the contracts. But the lack of an open and competitive process for selecting lawyers to represent the state — and a winking indifference to the Legislature’s intent regarding how they will be paid — doesn’t do much to inspire public confidence in their work.
Edwards entered office pledging a new way to do the state’s business. Sadly, this seems like more of the same.