Attorney general defends approval of coastal-erosion lawsuit

Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell has submitted a court filing defending the independence of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East and his office’s approval of a contract between the authority and lawyers it hired to pursue coastal erosion claims against 97 oil and gas companies.

The filing came in response to a suit in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge that said Caldwell’s office should not have given the green light to the flood protection authority’s hiring of outside lawyers.

That suit, filed in December by the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, said the Attorney General’s Office is required to represent the authority itself, that the contract with lawyers led by the Jones, Swanson, Huddle and Garrison law firm should not have been approved, and that the flood protection authority is overstepping its role by involving itself in coastal restoration issues.

In his response last week, Caldwell said his office’s approval of the contract was a procedural matter and was handled the same way as “countless other similar” legal agreements involving the flood protection authority and similar agencies.

He asked the court to declare that the situation was handled properly.

“The Attorney General’s Office has asked the court for judicial clarification on this matter,” Caldwell said in an emailed statement. “My office was charged with reviewing the resolution presented by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East, and we did so in a manner consistent with state law written and enacted by the Legislature. We welcome the opportunity for the court to consider this matter.”

The response mirrors arguments Caldwell has made — including in columns submitted to state media outlets — since the controversial coastal-erosion case was filed in July. In it, he states the attorney general is required to represent the authority only when called upon to do so. He also says he approved hiring of the outside law firm based on the only three criteria required by law: a description of the need for outside counsel, information on the compensation involved and a statement of the reasons for the actions.

Caldwell’s filing also makes the case for the board’s independence, arguing the board is an “independent political subdivision, not a state entity or agency.” The board’s relationship to the state has been a source of controversy since the suit was filed, with Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration arguing the board is an arm of state government and thus was usurping the role of another state agency, the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, by filing the erosion suit.

The board’s contract with the outside attorneys has been a key point of attack for LOGA and Jindal’s administration, which have both argued the deal could represent a windfall for the attorneys. In December, the state Legislative Auditor’s Office said the matter required interpretation of state law and should be handled by the courts.

Attorneys representing the authority have promised to clarify the terms of the contract in response to some of that criticism.