In the face of the worst environmental disaster in American history lapping at Louisiana’s fragile coastline, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration has been working feverishly — trying to hire expensive, out-of-state lawyers to represent the state against BP in court.

Sources familiar with the administration’s efforts say that Team Jindal at one point proposed hiring a pair of non-Louisiana law firms, one of which typically represents large corporate clients, to sue BP on behalf of the state. That, even though many of the nation’s top environmental plaintiff lawyers live right here in Louisiana.

Our sources say state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office has opposed Team Jindal’s efforts, and so far the AG has at least been able to hold up the administration’s plan. Caldwell instead has retained a team of Louisiana plaintiff attorneys with much more experience suing polluters. To its credit, the Division of Administration, which reports to Jindal, has signed off on the AG’s contracts with outside attorneys. This is typically a perfunctory administrative function, but in this case the review and approval were expedited at Caldwell’s request.
But Team Jindal has persisted in its efforts to hire additional, non-Louisiana law firms. Advisers to Jindal and Caldwell have been meeting regularly trying to resolve the impasse, but as of Friday afternoon there was little progress to report.

There are several things wrong with the administration’s approach:

First, Jindal is the governor, not the AG. The Louisiana constitution makes Caldwell, not Jindal, the state’s top legal officer. The authority to hire outside counsel to represent the people of Louisiana thus is vested in Caldwell, and the AG already has signed up some of the best legal talent available. New Orleans lawyer Allan Kanner, who has a national reputation as an environmental plaintiff attorney, is Caldwell’s choice to lead the state’s effort — provided Jindal frees up enough money to let Kanner et al. do the job.

Ah, there’s the rub.

Second, local plaintiff attorneys have much more experience and expertise at suing people like BP than your typical out-of-state firm. Kanner’s environmental litigation experience, for example, goes all the way back to Three Mile Island. Other local attorneys Caldwell has hired have decades of experience each. This is not a close call.

Third, how can Jindal justify hiring out-of-state law firms to represent Louisiana citizens in this matter, knowing that those firms ultimately will take millions of dollars in fees back home and spend that money elsewhere, at a time when he’s cutting millions himself from state colleges, universities, hospitals and other programs and services? What is this administration thinking?

Fourth, if the governor wants to hire his own legal counsel to keep him in the loop, he has every right to do that. But, he should pay those lawyers out of his executive budget and not try to make his lawyers part of the state’s legal front line.

Finally, hiring an out-of-state firm, particularly a large firm, incurs the risk that the firm will have corporate clients whose interests are diametrically opposed to those of the state in this matter. What would happen when (not if) the state advances a legal theory that could set an “anti-business” precedent? Does anybody think those corporate clients would sit idly by? The potential conflicts of interest are numerous — and entirely foreseeable.

With so much stacked against the Team Jindal approach, why would the governor even think about trying to get involved in the selection of outside legal counsel — particularly non-Louisiana legal counsel?

The governor likes to pride himself on his laser-like focus. Going forward, his administration should focus more on doing the job Jindal was elected to do — and less on trying to do Caldwell’s job.

Team Jindal Responds

Jindal press secretary Kyle Plotkin issued the following statement on behalf of the governor in regard to this issue:

First, we’re going to be very aggressive in our efforts to protect our state and people. There’s no amount of money that BP can pay to make up for the harm they have caused our coast, but we’re absolutely going to do everything we can to make sure our people can be made whole again.

Secondly, the trustee agencies have a very important role in the NRDA process.

“Third, the AG is obviously the lead agency for litigation and we are working very closely with their office to get the absolute best people to represent our state. The AG is part of our Unified Command Group and we’re not going to do anything until there is agreement between the AG and the trustee agencies.”