Newell Normand, the popular sheriff of Louisiana’s second most populous parish, arguably did as much as anyone to put Gov. John Bel Edwards over the top in his remarkable election victory last fall.
Days after the October primary, the Jefferson Parish sheriff held an extraordinary news conference to discuss an incident in which his deputies arrested an operative working for U.S. Sen David Vitter — Edwards’ opponent in the runoff — after he was caught spying on the sheriff and his friends as they sipped coffee.
The next day, an ad underwritten by the Democratic Governors Association hit the airwaves. In it, Normand described his distaste for Vitter, a fellow Republican but a longtime political enemy, in no uncertain terms. “David Vitter’s all about David Vitter. He’s not about anyone else,” Normand said.
While Normand never officially endorsed Edwards — a Democrat — the powerful Louisiana Sheriffs Association, of which Normand is a key member, did. On election night in November, Normand swung by the governor-elect’s victory party.
Less than three months later, the newly named members of the Superdome Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, chose a new lawyer to represent the agency, formally known as the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District.
Their choice? Shawn Bridgewater-Normand, the sheriff’s wife.
Bridgewater-Normand, a partner in the well-regarded New Orleans firm Chaffe McCall, replaced Larry Roedel of the Baton Rouge firm Roedel Parsons Koch Blache Balhoff & McCollister, which had held the lucrative contract since 2004.
Over the past three years, the job has generated billings averaging about $300,000 a year for the firm, according to the LSED’s billing records.
Legal services are considered a professional service under Louisiana law, and there is no requirement that public agencies seek bids or conduct an open review process when choosing attorneys.
Asked how the LSED board chose Bridgewater-Normand, Chairman Kyle France said it was his understanding that a new Superdome board generally picks a new attorney. He said he came up with three possibilities, interviewed them and ran them past Edwards. The governor said all three sounded like quality candidates, France said.
“He said, ‘I think any of those would be excellent choices. I’m sure the board will pick the right person,' ” France recalled.
"That was my discussion with the governor relative to this. Never once did he tell me to hire anybody. He has not told me how to run this board."
France's preference was for Bridgewater-Normand, he said, both because she is a top-notch lawyer and because she has the resources of a large firm backing her up. Among other major clients, Bridgewater-Normand has long represented the funeral-services firm Stewart Enterprises and the development company HRI. France added that she is the first female attorney to represent the LSED.
While he counts the sheriff as a friend, France said he never talked to Normand about the job.
“Shawn has the expertise and we felt comfortable with her, and that's how we brought her on,” France said. “As far as a (public) vetting process … that isn't the way it has been done in the past, nor was it done that way in this case.”
In 2004, when Roedel Parsons got the contract, the process was similarly opaque. The firm and its lawyers had been major financial supporters of Gov. Kathleen Blanco when they got the nod for the contract shortly after Blanco named a new board in 2004.
Roedel Parsons may have sealed the deal by hiring longtime Orleans Parish Civil District Court Clerk Dale Atkins, one of Blanco’s crucial political allies, just days before taking over the contract.
Atkins told The Advocate she left Roedel Parsons sometime after Hurricane Katrina.
Roedel Parsons managed to hang onto the Superdome contract in 2008, after Blanco chose not to seek re-election and Bobby Jindal won in a landslide. The firm and its members also reliably supported Jindal with campaign cash, contributing more than $30,000 to his coffers between 2003 and 2012.
Records show no contributions from Chaffe McCall to Edwards. Neither Bridgewater-Normand nor her husband gave to the governor, either.
France, the president of Kehoe-France School, said he has worked with many lawyers and that Bridgewater-Normand is “as good an attorney as I've worked with.” He estimated he’s on the phone with her four or five times a day.
“She’s very competent, very capable — she’s handled a lot of issues,” he said. “I’m very, very happy with her work product.”
Bridgewater-Normand declined to comment, referring questions about the contract to Chaffe McCall's managing partner, Howell Crosby.
Normand did not return a phone message seeking comment.
Advocate owner John Georges, a close friend, is among the people France consulted with before making the decision. Georges said he recommended hiring Bridgewater-Normand.
In the end, France said, his familiarity with Bridgewater-Normand — and her support for Edwards — carried the day.
"In the end, it’s just the nature of the beast," he said. "We certainly don't want to go hire someone we don’t know, No. 1, and No. 2, someone who isn’t going to be a team player in this governor’s administration. After all, he appoints this board. We serve at his pleasure."