Experts: Levees stronger, but still far from optimal _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The new permanent London Avenue canal pumping station is under construction where the canal meets Lake Pontchartrain. The London Avenue canal was the site of two of numerous levee breaches that doomed New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the years following the flood, the federal government promised more than $50 billion in recovery aid to governments, individuals and businesses in Louisiana. A key element of that package, one of the largest in history, was $14.489 billion to rebuild and upgrades the levee system that surrounds the New Orleans area and which failed during the storm, leading to catastrophic flooding.

A habit of badmouthing the judiciary is one of the many reasons Ashton O'Dwyer has been recommended for permanent disbarment.

In his response to the state Supreme Court filed last week, O'Dwyer avers that he owes no allegiance to “judges who are crooked as a dog's hind leg, like federal judges Stanwood Duval and Ivan Lemelle, inter alia.”

Perhaps it is a little late for O'Dwyer to adopt a conciliatory tone, but, if there was any doubt that his legal career is over, surely he just removed it.

This completes a fall from grace that has been painful to watch since O'Dwyer burst into public consciousness after Katrina. Until then he was a maritime lawyer with a silk-stocking New Orleans firm, and could be seen driving his Mercedes to and from the posh residence he shared with his wife on St. Charles Avenue.

All those trappings of a successful 35-year career are but a memory now, lost in bankruptcy. He has been jailed twice. His wife is gone. He has been disbarred by the feds and indefinitely suspended by the state. The only indignity left is the permanent disbarment that the state Attorney Disciplinary Board has now called for.

When the storm struck, O'Dwyer refused to evacuate and, in media interviews, lambasted state and federal governments as too inept to protect lives and property. He declared himself sovereign of the Duchy of Kilnamanagh, in the 6000 block of St. Charles, and announced he was seceding from the union.

This was, of course, a joke, although his suggestion that any attempt to oust him would be met by gunfire somewhat diminished the amusement. State police collared O'Dwyer in his driveway, where he was enjoying a late-night glass of wine, and hauled him off to the makeshift jail at the Union Passenger Terminal.

He claimed to have spent 16 hours in a metal cage, where he was pepper-sprayed and shot with beanbag rounds, and produced photographs of injuries to support his account. He was never charged with a crime, and filed a lawsuit but it died in the federal appeals court. He says he now walks with a cane, whereas before he was thrown in “Camp Greyhound,” he ran 8-10 miles before work every day.

Perhaps, if Katrina had not come along, O'Dwyer would still be practicing law today, but it proved his downfall after he took on a large number of clients blaming government incompetence for their losses in the storm. He became convinced that other plaintiff lawyers were trying to cash in at the expense of storm victims.

Evidently he had a point. In 2010, by which time O'Dwyer had been declared persona non grata by state and federal courts, Duval gave his blessing to a Katrina class-action settlement with levee boards. The appeals court, however, threw it out because it would enable plaintiff attorneys to “cannibalize the entire $21 million” on the table.

There is no doubt that O'Dwyer sees himself as a lone champion of rectitude in a world of rogues — this is an occasion where “quixotic” really is the right word — and let us give him credit at least for sticking to his guns at great personal cost. Deluded or not, he won't be intimidated.

But even if his cynical view of Louisiana justice is justified, and not one soul is honest, O'Dwyer made it easy for the forces of evil to triumph by giving them ample pretexts for getting rid of him. The Disciplinary Board recommendation, which runs to 63 pages, documents instances of misstating the facts, disobeying court orders, impugning the veracity of judges and filing vexatious and duplicative motions. His pleadings have been replete with vile and racist abuse.

O'Dwyer's intemperate effusions landed him in jail a second time in 2010, when he emailed his bankruptcy judge seeking permission to pay for a refill of a depression drug, and suggesting that, if he should become homicidal, “a number of scoundrels might be a risk” in the courthouse.

O'Dwyer spent 34 days in the St. Bernard Parish slammer before a federal judge brought in from Shreveport threw out his indictment, finding the threat was not a serious one.

You might say O'Dwyer has largely brought his woes on himself. His story still reads like a medieval tragedy, though. We can only wonder what injustices he might have exposed if he hadn't chosen to be the wild man of the courtroom.

James Gill can be reached at jgill@theadvocate.com.