by Clancy DuBos
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s efforts to scuttle the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East’s (SLFPA-E) lawsuit against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies gained traction today (Thursday, Nov. 21) from the SLFPA-E board itself, thanks to new members appointed by Jindal — and to board president Tim Doody.
Board members deferred a motion to affirm their commitment to the suit. The board also voted to submit the contract to the Legislative Auditor for review, but that’s no big deal. The auditor cannot render legal opinions anyway.
The vote to defer affirmation of the lawsuit came after Doody did not even invite the board’s own lawyer in the case, Glad Jones, into executive session to discuss the suit. That’s a sure sign that Doody has shifted sides and now opposes the suit — an interesting development considering how quickly Doody’s native St. Bernard Parish is going to wash away in coming years.
The SLFPA-E suit seeks to make energy companies pay their share for restoring southeast Louisiana’s vanishing coastal wetlands — which have disappeared largely though not exclusively because of Big Oil’s many miles of pipeline canals — as well as the higher costs of flood protection in metro New Orleans.
Attorney Joe Hassinger, whom Jindal recently named to the SLFPA-E board to replace historian John Barry, had planned to push a motion to suspend the lawsuit for 90 days. Barry has been the suit’s most vocal supporter. After reports that Hassinger may have a conflict of interest, he deferred his motion pending an opinion from the state Ethics Board. Hassinger is a “director” at the firm of Galloway Johnson, which has a robust energy law practice and an even bigger insurance defense practice. Hassinger did not let questions about his potential conflict stop him from voting on the two critical motions, however.
Team Jindal, hoping to fend off questions about Hassinger’s potential conflict, noted that Galloway Johnson does not represent any of the suit’s 97 named defendants. That does not address the equally sticky issue of whether the firm represents any of the defendants’ many insurers.
Meanwhile, Hassinger raised lots of questions about the contingency fee contract the board signed with Jones and other attorneys. He pressed Jones for an estimate of how much the board had incurred in fees thus far.
“Zero,” Jones said, noting that the board won’t incur any fees unless and until it or lawmakers kill the suit. Jones did say that attorneys had logged about 8,000 hours over the past year. He refused to estimate what the attorneys’ hourly fees would be, but noted that courts typically decide that question under an established legal doctrine known as quantum meruit.
As an attorney, Hassinger knows that, yet he continued to argue that the board had been “billed” for attorneys’ fees. At one point one of his fellow commissioners, a non-lawyer, corrected him.
Hassinger’s statements, and his questions of Jones, made no secret of his opposition to the suit. He thus has passed the “litmus test” that Jindal's point man against the lawsuit, coastal czar Garret Graves, said the board’s new members would face regarding the suit.
The SLFPA-E filed its suit in July after a unanimous vote of support from its nine-member board, whose members serve staggered terms to minimize political interference. Earlier in the meeting, actor and part-time New Orleans resident Harry Shearer called attempts to sidetrack the suit a “grotesque” example of political interference. Hours later, Hassinger dryly noted that the board is “neck-deep in politics” over the suit. Can’t argue with him on that one.
Graves urged the board to let the state focus on efforts to get money out of the Army Corps of Engineers, which he said was responsible for almost 90 percent of coastal land loss because of Mississippi River levees that keep sediment out of the marshes. There’s no doubt that the Corps bears a lot of responsibility, but Graves’ and Jindal’s approach requires Congress to agree with their assessment — and pony up billions. Moreover, Graves admits Big Oil has liability.
For now, the flood authority’s lawsuit remains alive. Considering Jindal’s relentless opposition and the fact that Jones’ client is “neck-deep in politics,” its prospects are not good.