Thursday, November 21, 2013

Levee board suit survives, for now

Posted By on Thu, Nov 21, 2013 at 12:00 PM

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s efforts to scuttle the Southeast Louisiana Flood Authority-East’s (SLFPA-E) lawsuit against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies fizzled today (Thursday, Nov. 21) when the authority’s board deferred a motion to suspend the suit.

The SLFPA-E suit seeks to make energy companies pay their share of the cost of restoring southeast Louisiana’s vanishing coastal wetlands — which have disappeared largely though not exclusively because of the industry’s many miles of pipeline canals — as well as the higher costs of flood protection in metro New Orleans. The suit claims that coastal land loss makes local hurricane protection levees significantly more expensive — and vulnerable.

Attorney Joe Hassinger, whom Jindal recently named to the SLFPA-E board to replace historian John Barry, who has been the suit’s most vocal supporter, had planned to push a motion to suspend the lawsuit for 90 days. However, after reports that he may have a conflict of interest, Hassinger deferred his motion pending an opinion from the state Ethics Board. Hassinger is a “director” (read: partner) at the firm of Galloway Johnson, which has a robust energy law practice — and an even bigger insurance defense practice.

Team Jindal, hoping to fend off questions about Hassinger’s potential conflict of interest, issued a statement 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. If the firm does represent any of those insurers, state law should disqualify Hassinger from even discussing the suit, let alone making or voting on a motion to suspend it.

A formal ethics opinion could take several months, if the Ethics Commission does a thorough job of investigating all of Hassinger’s potential conflicts. Meanwhile, Hassinger’s attempt to derail the suit, which clearly is inspired by Jindal, will become moot if the board votes later today (the board was still meeting as this was being written) to affirm the litigation.

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. At today's meeting, actor, social commentator and frequent New Orleans resident Harry Shearer blasted attempts to sidetrack the suit, calling them a “grotesque” example of the kind of political interference the board was created to avoid.

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