BATON ROUGE, La. — Defending his administration’s legal contract with a top fundraiser, Gov. John Bel Edwards on Wednesday accused Louisiana’s attorney general of fabricating politically motivated reasons for rejecting the lawyer’s contract to represent the state in litigation against oil and gas companies over coastal wetland loss.
Edwards said Attorney General Jeff Landry either doesn’t understand or is intentionally misrepresenting the contract that his administration signed with Natchitoches attorney Taylor Townsend, a former lawmaker and top fundraiser for the governor.
“Anybody who suggests that I’m picking my friends in order to do this rather than looking for the most experienced, most qualified people to bring this litigation, I would just tell you I dispute that,” Edwards said during a press briefing in his Capitol office.
Edwards claimed the oil and gas industry is financially backing other critics of the contract.
“I’m not going to allow the oil and gas industry to decide who represents the state of Louisiana in litigation against the oil and gas industry,” he said.
Landry said in a statement Wednesday that his office told the governor about the “serious issues” with his proposed contract.
“We have yet to hear a response from the parties who proposed it,” he said.
Before Edwards took office in January, Cameron, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes sued oil and gas companies in state courts over environmental damage that the suits attributed to drilling and dredging work. Vermilion Parish filed a fourth such lawsuit earlier this year.
Edwards said his administration will be taking a more active role in the litigation.
“It’s about the survival of our state and restoring our coast,” he said. “I don’t think anybody — not even the oil and gas industry — denies that they’ve caused unrepaired coastal damages. In fact, their own studies show it.”
The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association and Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, in a statement late Wednesday, said “the governor’s comments are an obvious attempt to deflect from the very serious conflict of interest issues that have been raised by the media in recent weeks.”
“Rather than working to address these issues, it seems the governor is doubling down on this flawed attempt to hire private lawyers to attack Louisiana’s energy industry,” the groups’ statement said. “That’s alarming, particularly given that the first two lawsuits to proceed to major decisions have been dismissed by federal and state courts. … Whatever their outcome, these lawsuits are not a funding mechanism for state or local government budgets and they will not help protect the coast. On the contrary, they divert critical time and resources away from the industry’s support of Louisiana’s coastal restoration efforts, which have been underway for decades.
“Louisiana’s oil and natural gas industry is the largest private investor in our state’s coast. These efforts would be better supported and strengthened through collaboration, not litigation.”
Edwards, a Democrat, said the state’s Republican attorney general lacks the authority to reject his pick of lawyers.
In a letter to the governor’s office dated Sept. 6, Landry’s chief deputy counsel rejected the contract as “unacceptable on multiple grounds” and said the scope of it is “entirely too vague and overly broad.” The letter also claimed the contract created “an illegal and unconstitutional contingency fee arrangement” for Townsend.
Edwards said there’s nothing “untoward” or “improper” about the contract.
“And if I were trying to enrich these lawyers, why would I in the contract have a $225 hourly fee when the amount approved by the Legislature and in the law that governs this is $500 an hour?” he asked.
Edwards said he is willing to meet with Landry to discuss and possibly resolve their differences.
“But it’s going to require some good-faith effort on his part, I believe, to not cry politics every time something doesn’t happen just the way he wants it to,” Edwards added.
While he expects other parishes to file suits, the governor said the state will pursue its own litigation “in the not-too-distant future” if other coastal parishes balk at suing.
“If we’re going to litigate this issue to conclusion, we need to do it across the entire coastal zone,” he said. “To do this piecemeal over a long period of time is in nobody’s best interest.”
Landry said in Wednesday’s statement that he doesn’t support the filing of additional lawsuits.
“These matters share the same legal issues, all of which can be addressed in the existing suits,” he said. “The only thing additional lawsuits do is raise the cost of litigation, keeping the legal meter running unnecessarily. Ultimately, the more money wasted in litigation is less money going to the coast.”