Nov. 02–Are officials doing enough to spray for mosquitoes, hold down flood insurance rates and cut grass along levees and highways? These are the questions that typically animate elections in Plaquemines Parish.
But this year, trial lawyers on one side and oil and gas interests on the other are battling for the allegiance of voters on a new issue: whether the Parish Council should continue to support lawsuits against oil and gas companies that could net the parish hundreds of millions of dollars to help restore its rapidly eroding coast.
Given the small amounts of money typically spent on Parish Council and parish president races in Plaquemines, the rival groups are attempting to have an outsized influence. So far, oil and gas interests have spent at least $70,000 on influencing voters ahead of the Nov. 6 elections while trial attorneys have spent at least $35,000.
The final tallies won’t be known until after the election, but the sums spent by the warring factions so far work out to nearly a quarter of all the money spent in the last parishwide primaries, in 2014.
“You have people trying to drive elections who are not from here,” said Norris Babin, publisher and editor of the Plaquemines Gazette weekly newspaper. “It’s unprecedented.”
Trial attorneys who have filed the lawsuits for the parish, led by the Talbot, Carmouche & Marcello firm of Baton Rouge, say taxpayers must hold the oil and gas companies accountable for the damage and pollution caused by their drilling over decades.
In urging the council two weeks ago not to kill the lawsuits, lawyer John Carmouche said he was engaged in secret settlement negotiations with several companies. “Just the jobs that would be created for the restoration would be enormous,” he said.
But oil and gas interest groups based in Baton Rouge and New Orleans blame other factors for the disappearing coast. They claim that the lawsuits have chilled oil and gas investment and cost jobs in a parish heavily dependent on the industry.
“We support candidates who support the oil and gas industry,” said Chris John, a former Democratic congressman who is president of the Baton Rouge-based Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association. The association’s political action committee has donated $500 apiece to seven candidates for the Parish Council.
Another candidate, Kerry Lincoln, rejected the association’s contribution, saying in an interview, “They had no business in District 8.” John said his group offered the money because Lincoln said he opposed the lawsuits, but Lincoln said that he doesn’t.
Does the public care?
Each side has allied with local groups in the elections for parish president and the nine council seats.
What’s not clear is to what extent the lawsuit dispute matters to the 7,000 or so people who will vote in Plaquemines, despite the efforts by both sides to influence them through direct contributions to candidates and spending on mailers and social media by political action committees.
“Candidates are promoting it more than the public cares,” Bonnie Tonglet, a retired secretary, said outside of the Belle Chasse Branch Library after voting early with her husband on Tuesday.
A closing blitz, of course, could galvanize voters on one side or the other.
The council originally authorized the lawsuits in 2013, but oil and gas interests persuaded the council to stop them — only to have the council reverse itself once again in 2016 to reinstate the lawsuits.
Oil and gas lobbyists pushed the council once again recently to kill the suits, but failed. A vote to do so on Oct. 11 needed five votes but gained only a 4-3 majority, with two abstentions.
The oil and gas industry lobbyists might have had the votes they needed, but council Chairwoman Nicole Smith Williams abstained, saying she had recently learned that her employer might be affiliated with two companies that have been sued. Williams told the Plaquemines Gazette afterward that an article in Bayou Brief, a left-leaning digital publication, had raised the question. She did not return two phone calls from The Advocate seeking a fuller explanation.
The Oct. 11 vote means that Plaquemines remains the tip of a spear aimed at the oil and gas industry: It’s on a path to become the first of the six coastal parishes that have filed suits to have its case actually heard in court. The case had been set for March 2019, but legal moves by oil and gas attorneys have delayed a trial date until late next year at the earliest.
Of the 42 lawsuits filed by the six parishes, half are in Plaquemines. A total of 202 oil and gas companies are potentially on the hook for damages.
The stakes are very high because parish and state governments overall could potentially recover billions of dollars in court, or, perhaps more likely, through a broader settlement. The money would cover part of the massive cost of restoring the coast.
The lawyers who have filed the cases for the six parish governments stand to earn millions of dollars apart from any payouts to the parishes. How much the lawyers would receive would depend on a judge’s ruling, as there is no set contingency fee.
Electing a Parish Council committed to killing Plaquemines’ lawsuits might discourage other parishes from proceeding with their lawsuits, especially if Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has had the state intervene in support of the suits, loses his re-election campaign next year.
Lots of water, few people
Plaquemines is the least populous parish in the New Orleans metropolitan area, with about 23,000 residents, while at the same time it has the biggest total area of any parish in Louisiana. The rub: 70 percent of it — and growing each year — is water.
That ready access to water has historically made Plaquemines a haven for fishermen, shrimpers and oystermen. The oil reserves deep underground, meanwhile, have attracted the energy sector.
In 2015, royalties from oil and gas wells on parish land generated $36.6 million, or about 40 percent of the parish’s tax revenue, according to Tommy Serpas, the parish finance director.
But in 2018, the oil and gas royalties generated only $13.2 million, according to Serpas. That — and a $190 million debt mostly incurred by two 2012 bond issues — has forced local government entities to cut payroll by about 15 percent, and also meant a reduction in bug spraying and grass cutting, among other services.
The decline in oil and gas exploration and production has hit the economies of Buras and Venice at the southern end of Plaquemines Parish especially hard.
Gifford Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, said that even though oil prices have recently reached $70 per barrel, investment in drilling is less than it was when prices were last at that level. That’s evidence the lawsuits are hurting Plaquemines, he said.
But Brandon Taylor, an attorney with a Belle Chasse firm that is part of the legal team that has filed the lawsuits, said oil and gas production is also down in two other coastal parishes that haven’t taken legal action against the industry — Terrebonne and Lafourche — showing that other factors are at work.
Kirk Lepine is a member of the Parish Council who voted recently to cancel the lawsuits. Now running for parish president, Lepine has received $11,000 in contributions from oil and gas interests, or about 15 percent of what he has raised so far. He said he hears concerns about the suits’ impact on the local economy when he knocks on doors in the lower part of the parish.
He spoke Tuesday while greeting voters at an event organized by the oil and gas industry that offered free BBQ, beer and a zydeco band.
Also shaking hands at the event was Amos Cormier III, the parish president who is running for re-election. He is publicly neutral on whether to continue the lawsuits but has received $14,000 from the trial attorneys, or about 8 percent of what he has raised, versus $1,500 from oil and gas interests.
The third candidate for parish president, Burghart Turner, was casually dressed like the others, in a T-shirt and jeans.
The lawsuits have “not come up one time” during his campaign throughout the parish, he said.
“Hey, Carlton, have you been hearing anything?” Turner called out to Carlton LaFrance, a candidate for the District 7 seat who was walking by. “No,” affirmed LaFrance.
Neither Turner nor LaFrance has raised much money or received contributions from either the trial attorneys or the oil and gas interests.
‘Whose voice matters?’
The Grow Louisiana Coalition, a political action committee headed by a New Orleans advertising executive, has sent three mailers to voters in the parish opposing the suits and the candidates who have backed them. A political action committee sponsored by the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association has sent one more.
“Whose voice matters most in Plaquemines?” one mailer was headlined. “Ours or trial lawyers’?”
The mailer showed a smiling family with a nicely lit background, and a sinister-looking man peering from a dark background meant to represent trial attorneys.
The coalition also has published three full-page ads in The Plaquemines Gazette and carried out an aggressive social media campaign.
“We’re fighting for this so the people of Plaquemines know what’s going on,” Marc Ehrhardt, the advertising executive, said in an interview. Exxon, BP, Chevron and Shell are bankrolling the coalition, he added, although the coalition is established in a way that hides the contributions.
Louisiana Free Enterprise, a Baton Rouge-based political action committee that has received $100,000 apiece from businessmen Lane Grigsby and Art Favre, has donated a total of $5,000 to five candidates who want to end the lawsuits, according to campaign finance reports and the group’s chairman, John Diez, a veteran conservative political operative. The PAC also mailed an anti-lawsuit flyer that voters received on Thursday.
“I contribute money to people who tell me they’ll do good things for the people of Louisiana,” Grigsby said in an interview.
The parish’s main business group, the Plaquemines Association of Business and Industry, wants the lawsuits killed. Jeff DiMarco, the group’s chairman, said the suits are “counter-productive for business. It’s a money grab by trial lawyers.”
Phil Cossich, a Belle Chasse attorney working with the Carmouche law firm, told council members at the Oct. 11 meeting that the attorneys’ goal is simply to make the oil and gas companies pay what they owe.
“If you made up a mess, clean up your mess,” he said.
Benny Rousselle, a former parish president and now a Parish Council member, sponsored the motion in April 2016 to reinstate the lawsuits. He has been the favorite recipient of campaign contributions from the trial attorneys, with 21 $1,000 donations — or more than half of the $34,000 he has collected — coming from them.
In a recent interview, Rousselle said he favors moving forward with the lawsuits to ensure that the parish “has a seat at the table” in any settlement negotiations. He said the state under Edwards will pursue the suits no matter what Plaquemines does.
The Oct. 11 vote to kill the lawsuits was “an effort to disrupt” negotiations, Rousselle said.
The race for the District 4 seat presents a stark choice for voters there on the lawsuit question — if they care.
Irvin Juneau, the incumbent, worked at an oil refinery for 20 years and sponsored the recent resolution to end the lawsuits. “Suing the oil companies is a reason they all left,” he said.
Stuart Guey, a dentist who previously served three terms on the council, doesn’t buy that argument. He has received $6,000 from the trial attorneys out of the $27,000 he has raised. “They aren’t investing because they don’t earn enough money here,” Guey said of the oil companies.
But Guey said not one person has brought up the issue while he campaigns.
“They don’t think it’s important, or they’re not informed,” he said.
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