Sunshine: Lawyers lassoed big bucks

10 12, 2014 by The Daily Advertiser

During the 2014 Louisiana legislative session, Lafayette’s own State Rep. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette, passed Act 796, which added transparency and “sunshine” to the process by which outside counsel contracts are awarded by the attorney general, state agencies and boards and commissions.

This was a hard-fought victory with plenty of opposition. The reasoning behind the opposition was vague and general in nature. It was difficult to see why exactly there would be such heated resistance to a “good government” bill.

The cause of the opposition’s objection became clear last week.

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East hired the law firm of Jones Swanson to represent the authority in its lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies over wetlands damages. The firm was hired on a contingency fee basis, which was approved by the state’s attorney general. That firm, in a meeting this week before the SLFPA-E legal committee, outlined expenses incurred so far in the suit, which was filed in July 2013.

To call the findings staggering would be an understatement.

One way or the other, Louisiana taxpayers will have to pay the bill for $642,000 in legal expenses incurred by Jones Swanson since September 2012. Additionally, the firm has incurred $1.2 million in “political costs,” for which the contract explicitly states the authority won’t be billed. The firm estimates its lawyers have logged 14,869 hours working on the case. That staggering amount of time alone deserves further analysis.

The firm hopes to be paid for the hours, but has yet to designate what the hourly rate is. My guess is it will be a number that makes us all gasp.

Furthermore, the firm is guaranteed to recover between 22 and 33 percent of any potential award issued. And finally, the “poison pill” language in the contract allows the law firm to recover all expenses and fees if the suit is thrown out. This sounds like a potential hefty payday to me, no matter which way the suit ends.

It is no wonder that Bishop’s bill was met with such resistance from the other side. However, the bill only applies to prospective cases and cannot change the firm’s actions in this case.

Just this past week, the 19th Judicial District Court was given a chance to end the lawsuit. Unfortunately, Judge Janice Clark threw out that option.

She ruled that Sen. Bret Allain’s Act 544 does not impact the SLFPA-E lawsuit and even hinted she would rule the law unconstitutional. The law clarifies that only entities authorized to do so under the Coastal Zone Management Act can file suit over violation of coastal use permits. SLFPA-E is not one of those entities.

Clark called the argument “neither fish nor fowl,” saying she does not consider the authority either a state agency or a local government. This is puzzling, as even a cursory look at state law suggests the authority clearly falls under the “state agency” designation. Nonetheless, there appears to be other considerations outside of the judicial code at play.

I hope the appeals court will take all these factors into consideration as this issue progresses. We need a swift end to this, so we can direct our attention towards actual rehabilitation of the coast. That’s a tall order to accomplish in a courtroom.

Chris John, a former congressman, is president of the Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association.