Plaquemines Parish: Microcosm of Louisiana’s Near-Cosmic Dysfunctionalities

With less than a month to go till election day on November 6, campaigns across Louisiana could be described in one word: “lackluster.” Few TV commercials have been aired, and lawns sprout more toadstools than campaign signs.

Yet down in the toe of Louisiana’s boot, campaign activity is hot and heavy, and the battles being waged there have implications for this state’s entire future.

As Louisiana Oil and Gas Association (LOGA) president Gifford Briggs put it in an August 15 editorial: “Plaquemines Parish has their Council and Parish President up for election in 2018. This parish is ground zero for the coastal lawsuits. It is important for those inside and out of Plaquemines Parish to pay close attention to these elections.”

In 2013, Plaquemines Parish filed suits against 21 oil and gas companies, seeking to recover damages for coastal land losses due to the industry’s activities. Five other parishes have also filed suits, with a total of 42 similar cases against 202 oil and gas operators now moving – albeit slowly – through the court system. Currently, the first case in the group, Parish of Plaquemines v. Rozel Operating Co., et al, is set for trial in state court next March.

Both Governor John Bel Edwards and state Attorney General Jeff Landry have intervened in the suits, exacerbating the friction between them and amongst all the parties involved. Meanwhile the oil and gas companies named as defendants have been using every available legal maneuver to push back any day of reckoning before a jury. The industry has also been singing their usual tune – “jobs, jobs, jobs” – to the people and politicians in Plaquemines.

And now, the Plaquemines Parish Council is meeting on Thursday, October 11, to vote on a resolution to “have all outside counsel cease and desist action, and dismiss all lawsuits, effective November 8, 2018.”

This isn’t the first time the parish council has flip-flopped on this issue. After the council voted unanimously to initially pursue the lawsuits, shortly after the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East filed the first action along these lines, then-Governor Bobby Jindal, state lawmakers and the oil and gas industry threw more than a year’s worth of hissy fits. With the 2014 election, a new group of council members took office in 2015. At least one of them, Nicole Smith Williams, had run on a platform of doing away with the lawsuits.

Yet Williams, who works as an administrative assistant for Targa Industries, should steer clear of any votes on the lawsuits, to avoid violating state ethics laws. You see, Targa Industries owns Gulf Coast Fractionators, in partnership with Conoco-Phillips and Devon Industries, both of which are named defendants in the Plaquemines suits. The Bayou Brief reached out to Williams to ask her about this and her current stance on the upcoming resolution vote. She did not respond.

And she’s not the only council member with conflicts of interest. We’ll come back to that later.

Within months of taking office in January 2015, Williams proposed an ordinance to delay the lawsuits, even as former Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser was campaigning to become the next Lt. Governor of Louisiana. Nungesser, who had signed the parish contracts with outside counsel to instigate the lawsuits, was now castigating the action from the stump, calling the suits “bad for business”, as he filled his campaign coffers with contributions from the oil and gas industry.

On November 12, 2015, with the showdown at the ballot box between David Vitter and John Bel Edwards just nine days away, the Plaquemines Parish Council voted 5-1 to suspend all action on the lawsuits. Two of the nine-member council abstained from voting. One member was absent.

Edwards, who had made it part of his own campaign to state his support of the lawsuits, won the governor’s race. And shortly after taking office, new state Attorney General Jeff Landry jumped into the fray, moving to intervene in all the suits on behalf of the state, saying his was the constitutional right to make claims on the state’s behalf.”

Governor John Bel Edwards intervened as well, hoping to facilitate settlement agreements with the oil and gas companies. Both the governor and the attorney general met with local officials from the parishes involved, to explain their intervention.

And on April 14, 2016, Plaquemines councilmembers backtracked from their prior decision, voting to rescind their previous resolution and then passing a new resolution to proceed with the suits.

Councilmember Benny Rousselle, a previous parish president and the one who was absent when the suspension resolution was passed, explained the reasoning for their renewing activity in the litigation.

“This is an issue that has been bantered back and forth,” Rousselle stated. “After meeting with the Governor and his staff, and the Attorney General and his staff, it is quite obvious that these lawsuits are going forward – with us, or without us. Now, in my opinion, I believe we should be at the table when these lawsuits are settled.”

Rousselle also tried to shed some light on how the A.G. and the Governor differed in their reasons for joining the suits.

“The Governor’s Office says we are way ahead of the curve – that we have these issues well in hand. And they want to bring their weight to bear, and their expertise, to settle it. On the other hand, the Attorney General’s staff wants to make sure that the oil and gas industry comes out with a settlement that they can live with, so that the oil industry can move forward without having to look in the rearview mirror, wondering if they will be attacked again with litigation in the future.

“We’re elected to represent the interests of Plaquemines Parish, and you cannot be representative if you quit the game,” he concluded.

Councilman Kirk Lepine, who had previously supported the resolution to suspend the lawsuits, chimed in, “Who has the maximum destruction, the worst damage? Of course, we all think it’s Plaquemines Parish. Now when the state steps in with the money, it’s going to be distributed all over, and that bothers me. So I stand with Mr. Rousselle today, and I’ve got to have a seat at the table. I’ve got to stand up and say, ‘Look, no matter what we do, we’ve gotta be there.’ If we don’t we’ll be left out.”

Even Councilwoman Nicole Williams spoke in favor of returning to action with the litigation.

“I came in here standing firm that I didn’t think that we, as a parish, needed to be pursuing these suits against these oil companies. But the ball game has changed. The suits are going to go on, with or without us. Us having a seat at the table, we will have say-so as to where the money is distributed. If we do not, and we sit back and the state takes complete control, they’re going to distribute the funds, if any settlement is reached, as they see fit.”

The council then voted, 6-1, with two abstentions, to rejoin the lawsuits.

Five months later, the council witnessed their hopes for a swift resolution through settlement negotiations dashed, as the simmering bad blood between the AG and the Governor boiled over in connection with the coastal lawsuits. A state judge ruled one of the Jefferson Parish cases needed to go through administrative proceedings with the Department of Natural Resources before it could come to court. Landry applauded the ruling, and was supported in his approval by a joint statement fro, LOGA and LMOGA (Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association)

Further, Landry was blocking the governor’s contract with outside attorneys for the cases, saying it did not comply with the law because it did not allow the AG’s Office to take the lead role in representing the state.

Governor John Bel Edwards was not amused.

“I’m not going to allow the oil and gas industry to decide who represents the state of Louisiana in litigation against the oil and gas industry,” Edwards said, and then urged other coastal parishes to file suits, as well.

Landry, who achieved some notoriety as a “poster child” for oil and gas development when, as a Louisiana congressman, he displayed a sign saying “Drilling = Jobs” throughout then-President Obama’s September 2011 jobs-themed speech to Congress, has subsequently been making it clear his intervention in the coastal suits is to aid the defendants, rather than supporting the plaintiffs.

“I am — and make no bones about it — a un-bashing [sic] supporter of oil and gas and our energy sector here in this country,” Landry said when speaking at the Shale Insight Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 14, 2017.

In February this year, Landry filed suit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, charging them with exceeding their allowable servitude, since the Gulf Coast Intracoastal Waterway is now 900-feet wide through some parts of Vermilion Parish, rather than the 300-ft. width originally authorized. A ruling against the Corps would likely impact Vermilion Parish’s suits against the oil and gas companies, by establishing an additional responsible party for coastal land loss. Any damages recoverable from the companies would be reduced proportionally, according to their percentage of responsibility.

And in an editorial he penned for the Lafayette newspaper last month, Landry wrote, “Nationwide, a trend is developing that could eventually endanger jobs in Louisiana. Local governments in several states are teaming with for-profit attorneys to file public nuisance lawsuits, hoping to score massive paydays from energy manufacturers.

“As Louisiana’s chief legal officer, I have significant concerns that these junk suits could find a home here and have serious negative effects on our economy.”

He wasn’t referring to the 42 parish lawsuits here – technically. He was opining on lawsuits filed by East and West Coast states, arguing the oil and gas industry bears responsibility for global climate change. He has filed amicus briefs (along with 14 other state AGs) urging dismissal of those suits.

And should the Plaquemines Parish Council vote to drop the lawsuits this Thursday, it becomes more ammunition for Landry to use trying to paint John Bel Edwards as a “loser by association”, during the statewide elections next year. Landry is, of course, hoping to challenge Edwards for the Governor’s Mansion. While the AG has generally deferred to U.S. Senator John Kennedy, Landry’s impatience with Kennedy’s indecision over entering the race has been flaring of late. In an interview with the Monroe News-Star’s Greg Hilburn, published Aug. 1, Landry said of Kennedy, “If running for governor is what he wants to do, let’s get on with it.”

Meanwhile, there’s money pouring into Plaquemines Parish, trying to influence the council vote this Thursday, as well as trying to stack the next council in case this resolution fails to pass.

The Plaquemines Gazette just published a full-page ad from the “Grow Louisiana Coalition”, urging residents to contact their council members for a “yes” vote Thursday on the resolution. Though the ad says “The People’s Message: Jobs, Not Lawsuits”, the group behind the ad has a board of directors made up of Chevron, Shell, Exxon, and BP officials – companies which are, not coincidentally, defendants in the lawsuits.

The Grow Louisiana Coalition, a 501c4 organization, spent $1.3-million on advertising and promotions last year, and another $700-thousand on “public relations.”

The same group is also sponsoring “Plaquemines Parish Hometown Industry Day” on October 23 – free barbeque and refreshments for the whole family. Sharing in the sponsorship are LOGA, LMOGA, LCA (Louisiana Chemical Association), Plaquemines Association of Business and Industry, and Chevron. That’s the first day of early voting for the Nov. 6 election. Convenient.

What are the chances the resolution to halt the lawsuits will pass? Let’s take a deeper look at the current council members, their prior votes, and their affiliations.

John L. Barthelemy, Jr., represents District 1. A Democrat, he is also one of Governor John Bel Edwards appointees to the Southern University Board of Supervisors. A retired school district superintendent, he abstained from voting to suspend the lawsuits in 2015, and then voted yes on reinstating them in 2016. He is now running unopposed for re-election to the Council. He’s a likely “no” vote on Thursday.

William “Beau” Black, a Republican, represents District 2. Also a candidate for re-election this fall, his lone opponent dropped out of the race. A corporate security advisor, he abstained from voting on both the previous resolutions. He’s a likely abstention this Thursday, as well.

District 3 is represented by Kirk Lepine. A Republican, he voted yes on suspending the lawsuits in 2015, voted yes on reinstating them in 2016, and is a likely yes vote this week, as well. Lepine, who is a hairdresser/barber by trade, is now running for Parish President (a non-voting position), challenging current Parish President Amos Cormier, Jr. He has yet to file his required “30 Days Prior to Primary” campaign finance report with the Louisiana Board of Ethics, which was due Sunday. Without that, we can’t say with any certainty who is now contributing to his campaign, but part of his campaign has been stating the parish should drop out of the lawsuits. Phone calls by the Bayou Brief to ask about his stance have not been returned.

Irvin Juneau, an Independent, represents District 4. He voted yes in 2015, no in 2016, and is the sponsor of the resolution up for vote Thursday, so is an expected yes. He’s running for re-election, but has not filed an annual report for 2017, nor has he yet filed his 30-day report for the present election cycle.

That’s not the only ethics concern about Juneau, however. A retired oil refinery worker, his wife of 45 years was Kay Madere. Though he is now a widower, it still makes him “immediate family” of the ownership of Madere and Sons Towing, whose biggest clients include the oil and gas companies being sued. Under state ethics laws, Juneau should be recusing himself from all these votes. His sponsorship of the resolution currently up for consideration is especially problematic.

Benny Rousselle, the 5th District councilman, was absent for the 2015 vote, and the sponsor of the 2016 reinstatement resolution. He’s running for re-election now, and his opponent, Republican Wayne Meyers, has taken campaign dollars from Lepine, Billy Nungesser, and a couple of PACs that oppose the suits. Rousselle, a former state legislator and former parish president, may vote against the resolution.

6th District Councilman Charlie Burt voted yes in 2015, abstained in 2016, and is not running for re-election. It’s expected he’ll vote yes this time, though he – like Juneau – should recuse himself from any and all of these votes. Burt is the sales and business development manager for Madere and Sons Towing; his wife is the assistant to the company’s treasurer; and one of his accounts is Hillcorp, a defendant in the lawsuits.

Audrey Trufant Salvant represents District 7, and she’s a solid no vote on the upcoming resolution. She voted no in 2015, yes in 2016, and is not running for re-election.

District 8 Councilman Jeff Edgecombe will vote with the majority, as he supported the 2015 resolution, and the 2016 resolution, and is not running for re-election.

District 9 Councilwoman is Williams, whose need to recuse has been previously discussed, though she will likely vote yes.

So the likely score stands at 4 yeas, 3 nays and two abstaining, although – ethically – four council members should recuse themselves, including the resolution’s sponsor, rendering the entire issue moot.

Continuing with the lawsuits would ignore the industry’s omnipresent carrot-and-stick of “jobs”. And if we insist that the oil and gas industry pay to restore the land they destroyed over the many years that they “giveth the jobs”, they could very well “taketh” them away.

And choosing to respond to the “jobs” bait-and-switch would be ignoring the rapidity of the parish’s land loss. Of the 2,567 total square miles within Plaquemines Parish’s borders, only 780 square miles of it is land. The rest is water. Louisiana’s Coastal Management Plan for the parish states that “between 1956 and 2006, Plaquemines lost approximately 248.7 square miles of land.” Assuming an average rate of 5 miles of land lost per year, the parish will lose half its current land mass by the end of this century.

Less land equals less people equals less jobs.

That’s foresight, however. And all we seem to care about is now, and maybe next year.