Stephanie Grace: Levee lawsuit already mired in politics

If you’re trying to stay above politics, it’s probably not a great idea to jump into the middle of the great industry-versus-trial-lawyer debate.

That’s where Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East finds itself these days, thanks to its epic lawsuit demanding that roughly 100 oil and gas companies fix the damage they’ve spent years doing to coastal marshlands, or pay for better levee protection to make up for the lost buffer.

In theory, the levee authority, the product of a post-Katrina reform drive to replace the parishwide levee boards of yore, is supposed to operate on a separate plane, to sidestep power struggles and focus exclusively on flood protection. Unlike in the old days, some of the new authority’s members are required to have actual expertise in things such as engineering and water management, and all are supposed to be free of political ties and conflicts of interest. The board is also set up to make independent decisions on things like, well, filing lawsuits — or so its members insist.

In practice, it turns out, it’s nearly impossible to stay above the fray. In its brief existence, the authority’s members have gotten into fights over funding and control over land behind homes that back up to its floodwalls.

But there’s never been a blow-up like this.

By filing the stealth suit, the levee authority has picked a major fight with defenders of the industry’s prerogatives and critics of “frivolous lawsuits” that carry the possibility of huge payouts for lawyers — two categories with considerable overlap.

First to pounce were Gov. Bobby Jindal and his coastal point person, Garret Graves. Both had substantive complaints over whether the suit needed Jindal’s approval and to how it jibes with the statewide coastal plan. But each also honed in on the ideological elements of the controversy.

Graves’ Twitter feed after the suit was filled with references to “Greedy Trial Lawyers” who could make hundreds of millions, and to coastal damage caused by another government agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, rather than private enterprise. Jindal suggested the levee authority has been “hijacked” by trial lawyers.

Close behind was Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, who said he’d supported levee board reform as a legislator “in order to remove good-ole-boy politics.” He zeroed in on how the lawyers were selected, how much they’ve spent and what they’d make if the suit were to be dropped, as Jindal has demanded.

From the other end of the spectrum came a chorus of “it’s about time.” Voices included a coalition of environmental groups that argued that oil and gas interests have a moral obligation to remediate coastal loss from decades of dredging. By the way, some of the companies named in the suit earn billions annually, the group noted.

You don’t see many politicians on that side, which is surely due the industry’s role as a source of both political money and jobs in Louisiana, although a few are quietly calling the authority’s strategy intriguing.

Nor do the suit’s cheerleaders dwell on the giant trial lawyer cut, 32.5 percent of the first $300 million and 22.5 percent of anything beyond. While they may find the prospect unseemly, they probably figure cutting such a deal was the only way to get lawyers to take on the risk that they’d come up empty.

Indeed, membership in the different camps is so predictable that it seems as if everyone has retreated into their pre-assigned corners, at least for now.

That even goes for some of the reformers who fought for nonpolitical levee boards in the first place. Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, which first formed to pursue levee board professionalization, is taking no position on the suit, according to founder Ruthie Frierson.

The group does have a strong opinion, though, on whether three current board members whose terms have expired, particularly President Tim Doody and Vice President John Barry, should stay on the job. Frierson said the two men “have demonstrated consistent leadership, commitment and loyalty,” in focusing on flood protection and fulfilling their fiduciary responsibility.

That position, neutral as it strives to be, may put the group at odds with the governor. Jindal plans to intervene in the lawsuit, and is reportedly considering replacing board members whose terms have expired and those whose time will be up next year. That could give him enough votes to get the suit dropped.

Or it could all blow over. There’s no direct precedent to this lawsuit, but some have compared it in scope and intent to Louisiana’s litigation against Big Tobacco in the 1990s, filed by Attorney General Richard Ieyoub over the objection of then-health Secretary Bobby Jindal and Gov. Mike Foster.

Today, proceeds from the $4.6 billion settlement are still being used to shore up the TOPS fund and to plug holes in the state budget.

Funny how Jindal doesn’t seem have any problem with that now.

Stephanie Grace can be reached via email at sgrace@theadvocate.cos.