ttorney General Jeff Landry has rejected Gov. John Bel Edwards' choice of lawyers to represent the state government in several coastal damage lawsuits -- furthering the divide between Louisiana's two top elected officials.
The attorney general's office will not approve a contract to hire private lawyers that Edwards has requested because the arrangement is too broad and vague, according to a letter sent from Landry's office to Edwards' staff Tuesday (Sept. 6). Landry's staff was also uncomfortable with the fee arrangement the governor had proposed for the attorneys.
The contract drafted by the governor's office would allow the attorneys to collect millions of dollars in fees potentially, something Landry's office said could violate state law. Edwards' general counsel, Matthew Block, has disagreed with this assertion, saying there is nothing illegal about the proposed arrangement.
In the letter, the attorney general also said the private lawyers the governor seeks to hire have potential conflicts of interest that should disqualify them. The attorney general's office said some of the lawyers' law firms already represent local governmental bodies in coastal lawsuits. Those local governments' interests could conflict with the state's interests at some point.
"The above issues are but a few of the many additional problems that we have noted with the proposed contract," Wilbur Stiles said, chief deputy attorney general, wrote in the letter to Block.
(Read the letter the attorney general's office sent the governor's office here.)
The coastal lawsuits dispute is only the latest twist in an ongoing political struggle between Edwards, a Democrat, and Landry, a Republican. Louisiana's top two political officials have been fighting over everything from the state budget to transgender issues since taking office in January.
Edwards wants the state government to join the efforts of Jefferson, Cameron, and Plaquemines parishes in seeking compensation for damage they say was done to Louisiana's coastline by oil and gas companies.
In recent weeks, Landry has implied he's not interested in pursuing such lawsuits overall, regardless of what lawyers the governor would want to use.
Last month, the attorney general agreed with a judge's decision to throw out a coastal lawsuit filed by Jefferson Parish -- indicating that he didn't think such legal action was prudent overall. The governor, meanwhile, wants to challenge the judge's decision.
So far, Landry appears to have the upper hand in the standoff between Louisiana's top two elected officials over coastal lawsuits, which was first reported by The Advocate newspaper and WWL-TV.
The governor says he wants involved in the lawsuits so that the state will have more control over what happens with the potential settlement. That money could be used to help implement the state's coastal restoration plan.
"We want to ensure that the state's interests are protected and we do everything we can to protect our coast as well," saandry seems to have a difference of opinion about whether the state should be involved in the lawsuits, but he could also object to Edwards' choice of lawyers for many reasons.
As The Advocate and WWL reported last week, six of the seven lawyers the Edwards administration wants to hire contributed to Edwards' gubernatorial campaign.
The six lawyers gave a total of at least $130,000 to Edwards, according to a review of campaign finance documents. About $74,000 of those contributions came from J. Rock Palermo, his family, companies, and law firm.
At least $60,000 of the Palermo contributions were dropped on Edwards the week after the gubernatorial primary, once Edwards and U.S. Sen. David Vitter were in a runoff election.
As a state legislator and gubernatorial candidate, Edwards has been clear about supporting the coastal lawsuits. But Vitter wasn't supportive of the litigation and, presumably, would not have wanted to get the state involved.
During the election, Edwards -- who is a trial lawyer -- received widespread support from attorneys involved in the coastal litigation, not just the six lawyers he is seeking to hire.
A Baton Rouge law firm who had taken the lead on behalf of the parishes in several of the coastal lawsuits -- Talbot, Carmouche and Marcello -- spent about $1.5 million on television ads damaging to Vitter and supportive of Edwards and Landry's predecessor, Buddy Caldwell, during the election season last fall. Edwards won, but Caldwell ended up losing to Landry.
Edwards, oil execs disagree on industry's help restoring coast
Some of the lawyers Edwards wants the state to hire -- including Palermo and attorney Gladstone Jones -- have an extensive background in environmental litigation. Others don't.
The contract the governor's office has drawn up to hire the lawyers is being managed through Taylor Townsend, a former state representative and personal injury lawyer who doesn't specialize in environmental law or oil and gas litigation.
Townsend has close connections to the governor. He headed up Edwards' transition team between the gubernatorial election and inauguration. Townsend also leads the Louisiana Families First political action committee, set up to support Edwards by former state Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, who is now the governor's chief of staff.
"All of lawyers involved have a wealth of experience in litigation generally," Block said last week. "Some of the lawyers involved obviously have more environmental litigation experience than others."
Block said Edwards selected lawyers that the governor -- who worked in private practice until his election -- felt confident would do the best job.
"He's known many of these individuals for a long time right now. I think it goes to his sense of his faith and confidence in them," Block said.
Landry has been backed by the oil and gas industry throughout his political career, including in the attorney general's race last year.
During 2014 and 2015, Landry's campaign received more than $75,000 from oil companies and contractors. A political action committee that supports the attorney general, called Louisiana Citizens for Job Creators, has also received support from the oil and gas industry.
Harvey Gulf International Marine, LLC -- which specializes in work for offshore oil companies in the Gulf of Mexico -- gave the PAC connected to Landry $100,000 last November. The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association political action committee gave the group $17,500 last October.
In interviews last week, the Edwards administration said it was surprised that the attorney general decided to split with the governor on the coastal lawsuits. Landry and Edwards had been working together on the coastal lawsuit issue until the middle of August, according to Block.
The Edwards administration said it discovered the attorney general may have shifted his position on the coastal lawsuits a couple of weeks ago, when Landry issued his statement supporting the judge's decision to throw out the Jefferson Parish cases. Landry's office didn't contact Edwards' staff before the press release when out to say the attorney general was taking a different approach.
"I cannot tell you that I have a firm understanding of what their position is going to be in this case moving forward," Block said last week.
The governor's office said Landry has refused to act on a number of other state legal contracts sent to the attorney general from the governor's office. Some state boards and commissions have not been able to hire legal counsel yet, because Landry hasn't signed off on their attorney selections.
Block said Landry is overreaching when it comes to these matters. He said the attorney general is only supposed to check to make sure the lawyers meet some basic hiring requirements. He's not supposed to block their hiring for other reasons, Block said.
"The attorney general offices does not get to decide who gets to represents state boards and commissions," Block said.