By KEVIN McGILL
NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ Legislation aimed at killing a south Louisiana flood board’s lawsuit against the oil and gas industry has been passed and signed into law, but nothing is settled yet _ including the future membership of the flood board itself.
“We now move to the judicial branch where we will sort this out,” lead attorney Gladstone Jones said after Gov. Bobby Jindal signed the measure into law. His statement portends fights in federal court, where the lawsuit currently lingers, and in state court. A state court challenge had been predicted by opponents even before final passage of the law that, in effect, retroactively kills the lawsuit.
Critics of the law also predict BP PLC will use it to fight lawsuits filed by state and local governments over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Jindal’s lawyers say it’s an unfounded fear but only time will tell if they were right.
The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East filed its lawsuit last summer. It seeks damages from almost 100 petroleum companies, claiming drilling and dredging by oil, gas and pipeline companies are partly to blame for degradation of coastal wetlands that serve as a natural hurricane buffer for New Orleans.
Jindal, oil industry executives and their allies in the Legislature decried the suit as a misguided attack on a valuable industry and an action that undermined the state’s coastal restoration efforts.
Legislation is not Jindal’s only means of trying to stop the lawsuit. He has been picking members off of the nine-member Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East as opportunities have arisen. And he may get another opportunity to replace a fifth member soon _ meaning he could likely get the board that filed the lawsuit to kill it.
Jindal can fill vacancies on the levee board as they arise from among nominees chosen by a special committee. The chairman of that committee, Jay Lapeyre, last week wrote a letter to Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, seeking some clarification on exactly when the terms of two members, Jefferson Angers and G. Paul Kemp, come to an end.
Kemp’s end-date is crucial. He has been a lawsuit supporter. The question is whether his term ends this coming July or in 2015. Kemp was appointed to fill a four-year seat that expires in 2014, but Kemp’s letter of appointment from the board show that he was appointed through 2015, the letter states.
Caldwell won’t be weighing in with an opinion right away. His office sent Lapeyre a response last week saying it issues opinions to a public body only after the issue has been placed on the agenda for a meeting of that body. A special meeting of the nominating committee has been set for June 25 to take care of that.
A fight over lawyers’ fees is also ahead. The flood board entered into a contingency contract that would mean significant percentages for their lawyers if they win, nothing if they lose. However, it also included a “poison pill” provision requiring that the lawyers be reimbursed if the suit is withdrawn.
Jindal executive counsel Thomas Enright said in an email there are no plans for the state to help pay the board’s bill if the lawsuit dies. Attorney Gladstone Jones provided an estimate in January at a meeting of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority: Expenses at that point were in the range of $500,000 to $800,000 plus as many as 9,000 “billable hours” for law firm employees at rates ranging from $200 to $850 per hour.
The poison pill provision once was seen by backers of the lawsuit as a disincentive for political interference. Perhaps the only thing clear at this point is how little difference it made.