Robert Adley rushed out of the state Senate chamber last week — past fellow politicians, past lobbyists wanting a minute of his time, past tourists visiting the State Capitol.
He’d caught a bird that found its way into the building. He strode through the lobby, the bird’s head poking out from his cupped hands.
Adley shouldered open a door and opened his hands.
“I felt sorry for the bird,” he said, as it took off.
Adley’s political foes should be so lucky.
During 27 years as a state lawmaker, Adley, a 66-year-old Republican and former Marine from the Bossier Parish town of Benton, has gained a reputation as someone who either outsmarts or outworks his opponents.
Adley’s skills are on full display this legislative session as he attacks a high-profile, highly charged initiative.
He is leading the effort to kill a lawsuit that would force 97 oil and gas companies to pay billions of dollars to repair the state’s eroding coast.
The lawsuit was filed in July by the agency dedicated to protecting the east bank of Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes: the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East. In seeking quash the lawsuit, Adley is doing the bidding of Gov. Bobby Jindal and the petrochemical industry, which has enriched Adley personally and politically.
Billions of dollars in damages are potentially at stake in the lawsuit, and perhaps the coast’s future.
Three Adley bills — Senate Bill 547, Senate Bill 553 and Senate Bill 629 — would let the governor kill the lawsuit while two others — Senate Bill 467 and Senate Bill 469 — would derail it by other means.
The Senate approved Senate Bill 547 on Wednesday, sending it to the House, and Adley’s Senate Transportation, Highways and Public Works Committee approved Senate Bill 553 on Thursday.
Lawsuit supporters have come to harsh judgments about Adley.
“They’ve been carrying my head on sticks,” he said during one of three lengthy interviews in his state Senate office. “They’re calling me the face of Big Oil. That doesn’t bother me. I get excited when the public gets involved in an issue.”
But a minute later, he described the experience differently: “Nobody likes it when people say bad things about you. I’m no different than anyone else. But I’ve done my best to ignore it. I’m more interested in the facts.”
The facts, of course, are in dispute.
The flood authority’s lawsuit alleges the oil and gas companies systematically destroyed wetlands by creating canals, then failed to restore the wetlands as required under their permits.
Adley counters the dredged canals can’t simply be backfilled and the flood authority’s procedure for authorizing the lawsuit was itself illegal.
More importantly, he said the industry shouldn’t be blamed for state regulators failing to enforce the dictates of the permits.
And he scoffs at the idea that the lawsuit is meant to benefit the wetlands.
Adley contends the lawsuit was the brainchild of lawyers who stand to make a fortune in fees if successful, a line the Jindal administration has pushed.
“This is about money” for the lawyers, Adley said. “It’s not about repairing the coast.”
When Jindal was looking for a leader on this issue, Adley was a natural choice.
He is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, which has jurisdiction over levees and already has heard the first of his three bills.
And Adley is steeped in the industry.
He owned Pelican Gas Management from 1992 until 2012. The company managed natural-gas supplies for towns statewide through contracts with the Louisiana Municipal Gas Authority.
In 2003, an Associated Press article questioned whether the gas authority awarded him the no-bid contracts thanks to his political office and influence — a suggestion he denied.
The business was lucrative. In 2002, The AP reported, he earned $259,000 from Pelican.
Adley’s latest financial disclosure report shows in 2012 he and his wife each earned at least $100,000, the highest reportable figure.
He now consults for gas companies.
The industry has been good to Adley, the politician. Oil and gas companies have dropped more than $150,000 into Adley’s Senate campaigns, reports Louisiana Voice.
“He has carried a lot of legislation for the oil and gas industry over the years,” said Don Briggs, the industry association’s president.
Adley’s numerous ties to the oil and gas industry have led critics to say he is far from a disinterested party.
“For nine months of the year, he is the chief executive officer of a gas company,” said Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, the retired U.S. Army commander who led troops into New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. “For three months [during the legislative session], he represents the industry he is in,” said Honore, whose nonprofit Green Army environmental group is fighting Adley’s legislative effort.
Adley said calls that he should recuse himself from the issue because of his industry ties are “un-American” and “outrageous.”
“It’s what I know,” Adley said. “Is it wrong to have someone dealing with legislation they know?”
In targeting the lawsuit, Adley is up against someone who knows the coast. The legal effort was championed by Flood Protection Authority Vice President John Barry, who was not re-appointed by Jindal to the authority’s board.
Barry since formed a nonprofit to advocate for the lawsuit.
The two were quick to parry each other’s attacks, in separate interviews.
“They all followed the law,” Adley said. “You’re suing people for doing what they were told to do [by government regulators]. That’s bad policy.”
If the regulators failed to make the oil and gas companies restore the wetlands, he added, the fault lies with the regulators.
Barry’s reply: “If they can demonstrate to me that the industry went to the regulator and said: ‘We’re done. How do you want us to restore it?’ that might be defensible. But that didn’t happen. ... The industry made sure for years that regulators did not enforce regulations.”
Barry pointed out that government and industry studies blame a share of the coastal loss on the oil and gas companies.
Adley said the Flood Protection Authority discussed plans for the lawsuit in executive sessions that were illegal because public notices were not issued properly. “They admit they hid it,” he said. “Barry admitted he broke the law. That’s corrupt.”
Barry said they followed the advice of their attorney.
“We gave proper notice and conformed with the law.”
Barry acknowledged that the notices for executive sessions — “Discussion of future litigation strategy” — were deliberately vague.
So why not allow the courts to settle the lawsuit?
“You cannot send a message to America and the world,” Adley said, “that if you want to do business in Louisiana, even if you follow the law, we’ll sue you.”
This story was originally published by The Lens — thelensnola.org — an independent, nonprofit newsroom serving New Orleans. A more detailed version is available on their website.