Court: SLFPA had right to hire outside attorney, not use AG’s Office

Advocate staff file photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority -- East encompasses the Lake Borgne Basin, Orleans and East Jefferson levee districts.  Louisiana law also includes St. Tammany and Tangipahoa Parishes in the same authority. Show caption
Advocate staff file photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority -- East encompasses the Lake Borgne Basin, Orleans and East Jefferson levee districts. Louisiana law also includes St. Tammany and Tangipahoa Parishes in the same authority.

Private attorneys used in coast suit

Attorney General Buddy Caldwell acted within his legal authority when he approved a resolution that allowed the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East to move forward with hiring outside attorneys for a lawsuit against the oil and gas industry, a state judge ruled Monday.

At issue was the levee board’s hiring of outside attorneys on a contingency fee basis last year in its lawsuit against nearly 100 oil and gas companies, alleging damage to coastal wetlands.

When paid on a contingency fee basis, the attorneys collect a percentage of any awards made in the case.

State Judge Janice Clark, of the 19th Judicial District, issued the ruling in the suit filed in December by the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association.

Clark did not explain her ruling Monday.

LOGA alleged in its suit that the levee authority is a state agency that operates under the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. As a state agency, according to the lawsuit, the levee board did not have the authority to hire outside counsel and instead needed to be represented by the Attorney General’s Office.

However, the ruling Monday means the court recognizes the levee board as a political subdivision such as a city or parish and it has the authority to hire outside attorneys, said Lori Mince, the attorney representing the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East.

“This was a sideshow created by LOGA,” Mince said.

After the ruling Monday, LOGA said it “strongly” disagreed with the court’s ruling and will appeal it.

LOGA focused its lawsuit on the contract the levee board signed with Jones, Swanson, Huddell and Garrison law firm. The organization claimed the contract was not legal and that Caldwell should not have approved the resolution to allow the levee board to contract with the law firm.

The attorney general’s approval of the resolution ignores the state’s constitutional requirement that “all financial awards for state agencies or state-owned properties belong to the state and citizens of Louisiana,” LOGA President Don Briggs said in a statement.

The constitutional issue, affirmed by the Supreme Court in Meredith v. Ieyoub, in which LOGA sued then-Attorney General Richard Ieyoub, found that contingency fee contracts need to be approved by the state Legislature if the case involves a state agency.

“The judge’s ruling today will potentially award hundreds of millions of dollars to private contract lawyers, not the citizens of Louisiana,” Briggs said.

Caldwell said Monday that he was happy with the ruling.

“I am pleased that the court followed the clear letter of the law and ruled that our office correctly followed the rules and procedures, particularly regarding our approval of the levee board’s resolution to hire attorneys,” Caldwell said.

The levee board has said its lawsuit is a way to have the oil and gas companies pay for damage they have caused over the years to coastal wetlands through the dredging of canals and other activities. The contribution to land loss, levee board members have said, makes the hurricane protection systems less effective.

Editor’s note: This story was modified on March 12, 2014, to correct the spelling of Huddell in the name of the law firm Jones, Swanson, Huddell and Garrison. The Advocate regrets the error.