It has been more than six months since a Baton Rouge jury awarded whistleblower landman Dan Collins $750,000 after the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources retaliated against him for reporting a state-funded dredging project that helped favored landowners develop oil and gas leases.
In May, the state, through DNR, asked the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal to overturn the $750,000 awarded to Collins.
Now that the case is in the appellate process, it is expected to take another six to eight months for the 1st Circuit to make a decision.
"Where it stands right now is DNR has filed an appeal of the jury verdict as well as the judgment on costs and attorney’s fees, and so we are awaiting briefing deadlines from the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal so that we can submit our written argument," says Collins' attorney, Crystal Bounds, of the law office of Jill L. Craft in Baton Rouge.
That, however, hasn’t stopped Collins and his legal team from delving deeper into the ever-expanding rabbit hole of state government corruption and collusion involving something that was once considered sacred among local landmen: the process of nominating and bidding on state lands for oil and gas leases.
Since the litigation — and in an effort to further prove that DNR’s so-called “water quality” initiatives were instead oil and gas dredging projects — Collins and company have made a deluge of public records requests, even going so far as to hire a second law firm to see what additional records they would receive, which Collins believes were not provided to him during his trial.
“I hired a law firm to ask for information that I believe we were not given in my trial,” says Collins. “I asked them to make public record requests in their name.”
After the discovery deadline was over and the depositions had ended, Collins’ legal team received a letter from the Lafayette law firm Oats & Marino that stated, “We believe we have previously produced these [documents], however, out of an abundance of caution, we are providing them again.” Oats & Marino represented the state in Collins’ suit against DNR.
In these documents from Oats & Marino (which Collins insists to ABiz had not been released before), there was a reference to the law firm representing the state while one of its law partners, Lawrence “Larry” Marino, through his own entity, Louisiana Property Acquisition Company, received the same contract that Collins had bid on — the very same contract at the heart of Collins’ whistleblower lawsuit. Collins, who for years had done work for DNR as a contractor, claimed in his 2010 suit that DNR shut him out of work for the state after he began alleging that DNR's water-quality projects were merely a cover for wealthy property owners and oil and gas companies that were exploiting the state's natural resources.
"Through the discovery process in this litigation, we asked DNR for all documents associated with the Requests for Proposals at issue," says Bounds. "DNR, through their counsel, Oats and Marino, did not produce records in response that indicated that the firm [Oats and Marino] was a subcontractor under one of the RFPs. However, my client was able to obtain records independently through ... public records requests that showed the firm as a subcontractor."
Collins and his team have made eight different public records requests to DNR since February.
Marino and two others formed Louisiana Property Acquisition Company, or LaPAC, in late 2005, according to the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office, and in 2008 the company got its very first contract for consulting services, RFP 2503-08-80, which records show was identified as “Professional Land Services for Coastal Restoration Projects.”
“I was actually competing with them, and that was one of the key contracts that I did not get,” says Collins.
Since that time, public records reveal, LaPAC and Marino’s law firm have both been billing the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development and DNR, a fact Collins says never came out during his court case. Marino has been with the Oats & Marino law firm since 1995, and his law partner is Stephen Oats. The name was changed to Oats & Marino after the 2010 death of partner William “Mart” Hudson.
The initial contract terms were set from Feb. 1, 2009, through Jan. 31, 2012, and compensation for LaPAC — with Marino’s law firm listed as subcontractor — was originally $750,000. However, an amendment to the contract was entered into on Sept. 16, 2009, fixing the maximum fee paid to LaPAC under the contract to $2.25 million. Records show the maximum fee — comprising state and federal funds — was again raised to $4.7 million on Sept. 21, 2010.
There does not seem to be any authority by law given for what occurred on the contract to LaPAC, which was advertised as a Request For Proposals for $200,000- $300,000 for five to six contracts at 36 months. The paper trail collected by Collins appears to show that the contract was renegotiated without authority by then- DNR Secretary Scott Angelle, who is now a candidate for Congress. Collins says the renegotiation to $4.7 million was handled personally by Angelle — outside of normal contract procedures and after deadlines. “In my 12 years of doing contracts [with the state] never did I every have or hear of the secretary personally getting involved in the contract process such as this,” Collins tells ABiz.
According to Collins, there have been no invoices or verification of payment amounts on any of the contracts with LaPAC from the public record requests his team has made, despite a second letter requesting that information since February. So it remains unclear whether Marino’s LaPAC ever collected the $4.7 million.
Collins says his records show that contracts to LaPAC have continued from the 2008 RFP to present and even into 2018, again using state and primarily federal funds.
“It was a contract that I believe the jury awarded me my damages on and from what I have uncovered, it appears that it was granted outside of the conventional methods of granting contracts,” says Collins. “It was done outside of the time period. It was done with a personal renegotiation with the secretary, Scott Angelle. It was entered into in an amount far in excess of what was advertised and the request for formal proposal. It was elevated to almost 20 times the amount of what was advertised.”
So the very firm that was representing the state in Collins’ litigation is doing land work both for the DOTD and DNR, and records indicate that there were multiple billings going on at the same time.
In other words, says Collins, Oats & Marino and LaPAC were double dipping.
Collins and his team also noted that there wasn’t a day from the first LaPAC contract through 2018 that they went without work.
“They have tried to butter their bread into the future by entering into contracts in 2015 that would carry them into 2018,” says Collins. “And we found that to be true not only with LaPAC, but we also found that to be true with Oats & Marino.”
In an effort to keep spreading the word on this issue, in hopes that state or federal investigators will launch a probe, Collins was recently featured on a local KPEL podcast called “Where the Alligators Roam,” with environmental activist Mike Stagg. To hear the hour-long interview titled “Dan Collins – The Honest Landman,” visit WhereTheAlligatorsRoam.us.
Collins is trying to understand why information on the website LaTrac, which provides citizens of Louisiana detailed information about how their tax dollars are spent, does not reveal the work LaPAC has been doing for DOTD and DNR.
“We found that there were missing entries for Louisiana Property Acquisition [Company],” says Collins. “All of the DOTD work that they were doing at the same time when they were doing coastal work, work for the DNR, none of that was listed. None of that work for Louisiana Property Acquisition that’s simultaneously being conducted with Louisiana Department of Natural Resources work. None of that was ever shown on LaTrac. Why? We’re not sure.”
Collins says that he found within the public records requests that various agencies have withheld certain documents, particularly those related to the invoices and payments to Oats & Marino and LaPAC. Collins says that while he has received some of the documents he has requested, most of his requests have been denied.
Collins says that after his team examined in detail the contracts with LaPAC to date, they recognized that there was a “blackout provision” in the RFP/contract procedures to prevent prospective bidders from contacting anyone in government during the contract-letting process while the RFPs were being considered.
The law firm withheld documents in the case that would have clearly shown that LaPAC’s Marino listed his own law firm as subcontractor under RFP 2503-08- 80, Collins says. That meant that subcontractor Oats & Marino profited along with LaPAC in the unauthorized $4.7 million RFP and that the law firm profited during the whistleblower litigation since that contract was from 2009-2012.
Collins is livid that by withholding the actual RFP submittal of information documents for LaPAC, which directly ties the local law firm to the RFP 2503-08-80, this information was not disclosed to the jury and it was unaware that the defendant’s law firm profited from the very contract the plaintiff was attempting to secure. So why couldn’t the state have found another law firm?
Among the many documents obtained from the public records requests were three documents regarding the renegotiation that took place months after RFP 2503-08- 80 was awarded to LaPAC.
One of those documents was the contract, résumé and letter from William Oats with Oats & Hudson that declared the “commitment of Oats & Hudson to provide all services required under any contract issued to Louisiana Property Acquisition Company” for the RFP 2503-08-80. The same letter stated that “Lawrence Marino would be the key personnel to provide these services.”
This letter and accompanying documents were never produced and were only received after public records requests in February of this year, according to Collins, who says DNR has yet to produce invoices and payments as required under public bid requests and Louisiana’s public records law.
Collins says during the trial, the state attempted to spin the renegotiation by Angelle by saying he was simply trying to lower costs, even though the then-secretary had renegotiated the contract well after the 90-day deadline.
Attorney Larry Marino did not return ABiz’s call seeking comment for this story.
[Editor’s Note: One of Dan Collins’ attorneys, Crystal Bounds, responded to ABiz’s phone calls after this story went to press on July 13. Some of her comments were added to the online version of this story. This story has also been edited to add an email obtained by Collins showing then-DNR Secretary Scott Angelle setting up a meeting to personally negotiate a contract with Lafayette attorney Larry Marino.]