Next month, a federal judge will decide whether the historic, mammoth lawsuit against 97 oil companies for damage to coastal marshes will proceed in state court or be moved to U.S. District Court, as sought by one of the defendants, Chevron. Big corporations tend to think they will fare better in a federal system of appointed judges than before an elected state judiciary. Federal court can be no picnic, though, which BP is learning in its Gulf oil-spill trial, now in the penalty phase, before U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier.
To whichever courthouse the case goes, before the first arguments are heard, a political sideshow is playing out in the court of public opinion.
The foremost champion of the suit, author John Barry, soon will not be vice chairman of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, once Gov. Bobby Jindal appoints a replacement from two names a nominating committee submitted, neither of them Barry’s. Though he can still speak out as a private citizen, his departure leaves a void among public officials willing to take on Big Oil.
Into the breach last week stepped Public Service Commission Foster Campbell, who called out the state Democratic Party to support the legal action. The early response of elected Democrats, however, has been muted, with none yet taking his cue. Their reluctance to get involved, particularly those in south Louisiana , does not surprise Campbell . “Some top Democrats have been tap dancing,” he said on the Jim Engster Show last week. “They’re in the pockets of the powerful instead of the people.”
Therefore, Campbell may have to go over the politicians’ heads to rally public support to at least dissuade lawmakers from passing sure-to-be-filed legislation next spring to curb the autonomy of the flood control authority.
The oil companies hope it doesn’t have to come to that, but, rather, for the lawsuit to be disposed of short of court or the Capitol. Their current aim targets not the lawsuit itself but the levee board’s contingency contract with its lead law firm. If the defendants can nullify the pact with the plaintiff’s lawyers, who would collect 22.5 percent of the first $300 million awarded and 32.5 percent after that, the levee board would not be able to afford the millions in research and legal fees it would take to press its case.
The strategy of the oil companies is, to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Dick the butcher, “The first thing we do, let's kill all their lawyers.
And so they have handed the knife to the one they deem responsible for letting this genie out of the bottle, Attorney General Buddy Caldwell. The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association is demanding that the attorney general rescind his approval of the levee board’s resolution approving the contract with its attorneys. The petition contends that state law requires that the attorney general’s office represent political subdivisions of the state or retain counsel for them.
Caldwell ’s office has not commented on the petition, but it has previously claimed that his oversight of the board’s action was very limited and that he did as the law prescribed.
To add some theatrics to the sideshow, enter Jeff Landry, stage right. The former congressman, who seems interested in running against Caldwell in 2015, recently unleashed an op-ed tirade against what he labeled the “Buddy System,” which he described with the terms “extortion,” “racketeering” and “ambulance chasing free for all.”
Caldwell shot back against “the lies of my detractors,” stating that he does not know the board’s lawyers, has never received a political contribution from them and did not authorize the contract but only the board’s power to sign it.
We likely will be hearing more from these two. Before then, politically, Caldwell finds himself on the spot. If he reverses his authorization, he angers the many in the public who want the suit to get a fair hearing, and he opens himself to being called a flip-flopper. If he stands by his initial decision, he exposes himself to the wrath of the oil companies and the many thousands of voters who draw their livelihoods, directly or indirectly, from the oil patch.
The flood protection board, as its supporters point out, was established by the Legislature to be insulated from politics. Nice try.