Legislative auditor won’t review legality of levee board’s contract

Purpera tells levee board its pact with lawyers may be up to court

The validity of a contract between a local levee board and the lawyers representing it in a lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies is a matter for the courts and not the Legislative Auditor’s Office, according to Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera.

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East should seek a formal court opinion, known as a declaratory judgment, as to how that contract fits into the web of laws governing the way it and other agencies can be represented by outside counsel, Purpera wrote in a letter to the authority.

Since the lawsuit, which seeks to force the energy companies to pay billions of dollars to restore coastal wetlands allegedly damaged by drilling and other activities, was first filed, opponents have zeroed in on the board’s contract with the lawyers handling the suit. In particular, the critics have focused on provisions that would give the lawyers, led by those with the Jones Swanson law firm, between 22.5 percent and 32.5 percent of whatever amount the authority wins in the case.

At the instigation of three new members recently appointed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, because of their opposition to the suit, the flood protection authority agreed to ask the legislative auditor to analyze the contract. That request was seen by some as an attempt to get an official condemnation of the agreement.

Purpera said Friday that kind of analysis is outside the purview of his office.

“We don’t think we can definitively give an answer, but we think it’s ripe for a court to give an answer,” he said.

In his letter to the authority, Purpera outlined a number of issues he said the court should review: whether the authority has the right to hire an outside attorney, whether the law requires the Attorney General’s Office to represent the board directly, whether the contingency contract abides by existing law and court cases and whether the authority is a state agency or an independent entity.

Each of those questions could create complications for the board if the court were to rule against it.

Attorney General Buddy Caldwell has emerged as a defender of the procedures used to hire the outside law firms, if not the suit itself, in part because his office had a hand in reviewing the contract.

The Attorney General’s Office checked the contract to be sure that the board outlined a “real necessity” when hiring the lawyers, that the fee was reasonable, that the resolution hiring the firm complied with state law and that the attorneys were in good standing in Louisiana. Those qualifications were all met, Caldwell has said.

Authority President Tim Doody said Friday he expects the board will discuss the issue at a meeting next week. The authority’s main attorney, Bob Lacour, is reviewing Purpera’s letter and will offer his advice to the board, Doody said.

“It needs to be carefully considered,” he said. “We need to discuss it as a board and decide what action to take as a board.”

Should the authority ask the courts to rule on the matter, it would not be represented by the attorneys handling the coastal-erosion suit, he said.

Whether the issue will get that far remains to be seen. While the request to ask the auditor’s advice was approved by a slim majority of commissioners, it’s unclear whether the six members who have repeatedly voted for the lawsuit would agree to ask a judge to rule whether the contract was valid.

State Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman Garret Graves, who has led the Jindal administration’s opposition to the lawsuit, said he plans to speak at next week’s meeting in favor of seeking a declaratory judgment. While Graves has argued against the procedures used to hire the attorneys, the Jindal administration has yet to seek to intervene in the lawsuit itself to argue that it is invalid.