Lawyers to OK contract changes in ‘Big Oil’ suit
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Attorneys suing 97 oil and gas companies on behalf of a New Orleans-area levee board have agreed to modify their contract to trim the amount they would receive if they succeed with the suit.
The lawyers also agreed to remove elements of the contract that critics have said give them too much control over the process.
One change under the agreement: If an energy company is forced to rebuild wetlands, the law firm will not be paid a share of the cost of the rebuilding.
The agreement was proposed by the Jones Swanson law firm a month ago in a letter sent to the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, but made public after a closed-door session Thursday, according to Nola.com (http://bit.ly/JaK89a ).
Commissioner Stephen Estopinal said the changes would focus on four elements of the contract and were proposed “unilaterally” by the attorneys working on the case.
The provision dropping awards to the attorneys that would come as a result of restoration projects, rather than from cash awards, had been criticized as potentially taking money away from efforts to repair the coast.
The changes would not drop a so-called “poison pill” that requires the authority to pay the lawyers for their time and expenses if the board drops the case or is forced to stop pursuing it because of actions by the Legislature. Supporters of the suit have said that provision is necessary to prevent political meddling in the case.
However, the new provisions would limit the amount the attorneys would receive under that scenario.
Previously, officials had suggested the lawyers would get repaid for about seven months of work they did laying the groundwork for the case at the request of flood protection authority commissioners. Under the altered agreement, the authority is expected to be required to repay only the costs of work done since the contract was signed in July.
In addition, the alterations would clarify that the attorneys could be fired for cause without bringing the “poison pill” into effect and would specify that the board must approve suits against any new defendants.
All those elements of the contract have been criticized by Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman Garret Graves, Jindal’s point man in opposing the lawsuit. In particular, Graves has said vagueness in the contract’s language could allow the attorneys to file new suits without board authorization, something he claimed could make future board members “indentured servants” unable to rein in their lawyers.
Details of the altered contract were discussed during a closed-door executive session.
Despite the contract alterations, debate over the hiring of the authority’s attorneys is expected to continue. Last week, the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association sued Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, saying he illegally approved the hiring of the law firms. The suit says the authority is not permitted by law to hire outside counsel and that the contingency fees and other elements of the contract violated state law.