June 2, 2014 12:00 PM
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Rep. Joel Robideaux came out swinging Thursday to retroactively kill a New Orleans levee board's lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies for damages to the coastline.

Rep. Joel Robideaux came out swinging Thursday to retroactively kill a New Orleans levee board's lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies for damages they caused to the state's coastline.

 
Rep. Joel Robideaux  

But having few answers to back his unabashed support of the legislation didn't stop him from pandering to an industry that will no doubt stuff his campaign warchest for his next big political endeavor - a run for Lafayette city-parish president in 2015.

When Senate Bill 469 came up Thursday for a final vote in the House, it was the Lafayette Republican who took the lead in arguing for the bill's passage. Maintaining that he wasn't "anti-coastal," Robideaux's main argument was that the levee board - a group he characterized as a "rogue agency" - should have never been allowed to file its lawsuit in the first place.

But when questioned by his legislative colleagues, Robideaux wasn't even sure why the independent levee board was created (it's supposed to be able to operate independently), repeatedly responding that he didn't believe the lawsuit was proper.

Earlier in the session, Robideaux sponsored another Louisiana Oil and Gas Association-backed bill to protect the industry from legal repercussions for its actions. Robideaux's LOGA bill, HB 869, was directed at retroactively stopping coastal parishes from filing suit against the industry (two parishes, Jefferson and Plaquemines, have already sued and two more are considering), but the legislation never even made it out of committee. The end result for Robideaux: being dubbed LOGA's water boy thanks to a comment from LOGA Vice President Gifford Briggs during an anti-levee board rally held in Lafayette earlier this year that the legislator was "carrying water" for the trade group.

Robideaux's decision to take the lead in advocating for SB 469 was viewed by some as an attempt to show the industry that he really could carry its water and be effective. And he proved successful as the House voted 59 to 39 to kill the suit.

"I was surprised by the role he was taking, but that would certainly explain it," says Dr. Pearson Cross, head of UL's Political Science Department. "It's definitely a strong move to ingratiate himself with the [oil and gas] people. They represent such a significant portion of the workforce around here, so it'll certainly be a feather in his cap. But it can't be the only reason."

Another possibility, says Cross, is that Robideaux's stance will also prove beneficial in terms of campaign contributions from industry donors: "He'll need deep pockets to run against Dee Stanley, and he'll need to tap donors that Dee doesn't have. It makes a lot of sense."

The IND reached out to Robideaux by email, asking him about a survey commissioned earlier this year by Restore Louisiana Now showing 62 percent of respondents from Acadiana were against a legislative intervention of the lawsuit.

Robideaux says in an emailed response he disagrees with the survey's results. "Although I don't know what information was provided to those polled, I feel confident that the information gleaned during the legislative process was? a more thorough representation of the issues surrounding the suit," says Robideaux. "In my opinion, a majority of my constituents, when presented with the facts, would agree that the Legislature acted appropriately?."

Robideaux claims the reasoning behind his stance centers on a vaguely written Coastal Zone Management Act, which he cites in the emailed response:

The Secretary, the AG, an appropriate DA, or a local govt with an approved program may bring such injunctive, declaratory, or other actions as are necessary to ensure that no uses are made of the coastal zone for which a coastal use permit has not been issued when required or which are not in accordance with the terms and conditions of a coastal use permit.

"I feel that the Legislature made it clear years ago that those four entities are the only ones allowed to bring a suit regulated by the CZMA," says Robideaux. "A few attorneys decided to challenge that limitation by suggesting that a flood authority also had the right to sue. [We] added language to existing law that explicitly stated no other governmental entity may sue other than the four entities currently included in law. As the legislative branch we have the right to clarify existing law. Our coast is important to everyone and it will take money to help restore it. But, financial necessity is not a cause of action and a defective lawsuit is impossible for me to ignore."

Not all of Acadiana's delegates share Robideaux's sentiment.

"I have no explanation for why Rep. Robideaux voted the way he did," says Rep. Terry Landry, D-Lafayette, who voted against the bill. "I was a little surprised that the vote wasn't closer, especially because all of the information was there for people to make an informed decision. I fundamentally believe it should be decided in the courts; that's what our constitution provides. But the lobbyists were working it hard, and that's just the process we live in. I just don't think any special interest or industry should [get] special privileges. The courts are here to determine the merits of a case, and that's where we should have left it."

Local voting on the levee board suit bill fell along party lines. Robideaux was joined by Republican Reps. Nancy Landry and Stuart Bishop in supporting the legislation to kill the suit.

Joining Rep. Landry in opposing the bill were Democratic Reps. Vincent Pierre, Stephen Ortego and Jack Montoucet. The only Acadiana senator to consistently vote against the bill was Fred Mills, a Republican from Parks.

"I don't think there was a single vote determined by the debate," says the levee board's former vice president, John Barry, one of the lawsuit's principal backers through his non-profit Restore Louisiana Now.

"I think it was a lot closer than the vote indicated. Once they knew we weren't going to win, some who were against just went ahead and voted for it," says Barry. "But maybe the most disturbing thing to me is not the bill's impact on the lawsuit, but its impact on a statewide settlement. It was right there. As [Attorney General] Buddy Caldwell stated, because of the lawsuit, the industry was coming to the table to work out a statewide deal. But we have a governor who turned his back on a solution for the state. All he had to do was pick up the phone and call the oil companies and say It's time to come to the table.' Instead, he turned his back on an opportunity to fund the master plan, protect people's lives and save the coast," he continues.

"I do know there's a few rabbits still in the hat," Barry says of the lawsuit's future. "And this is by no means over."

"We need to huddle with our client and map out strategy and our next steps," the levee board's lead attorney, Gladstone Jones, tells The IND.

Click here for Gambit Publisher Clancy DuBos's column on the "dirty dozen" in the New Orleans region that helped kill the suit.

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