La. gov's BP choice a strange one, Forbes writer says

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Aug 24, 2010


BATON ROUGE, La. (Legal Newsline) - Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has selected what some are calling "a most unlikely" law firm to represent the state in litigation against oil giant BP.

Daniel Fisher, who covers legal issues for Forbes, writes that Jindal has picked the Dallas-based firm of Baron & Budd, PC.

The law firm confirmed it would "provide counsel" to the state on how to recover damages from the BP oil spill.

People familiar with the contract told Fisher earlier this month it was negotiated by the Office of Coastal Activities, an agency directly under the governor's control, and was being reviewed by state Attorney General James D. "Buddy" Caldwell. Caldwell signed off on it.

Jindal, himself, was questioned about the hiring of the firm, which has strong Democratic ties.

"I don't care -- to me it's not about partisan politics," Jindal told The Shreveport Times. "I don't care if its a Democratic firm, Republican firm. The trustee agencies (such as Wildlife & Fisheries or Environmental Quality), the AG's office looked across the country. They have found experts, they have found advocates that are the nation's best.

"Certainly it is a positive thing that they've been able to identify some firms that have Louisiana roots, that have Louisiana connections, that know this coast, that know these wetlands. At the end of the day, this is all about being aggressive about defending our coast."

The state could have billions of dollars in claims against the oil company.

An explosion and fire occurred on Transocean's drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, licensed to BP, on April 20, killing 11 workers and resulting in the largest offshore spill in U.S. history.

Fisher writes that the law firm is an unusual choice for Jindal -- and not just because the firm is based in Dallas. Louisiana lawyers, Fisher writes, are "steamed" the governor didn't pick one of their own.

It's also unusual because President Barack Obama, he points out, recently traveled to partner Russell Budd's house in Dallas for a Democratic fundraiser. The firm also grew rich, he writes, on controversial asbestos litigation and was "famously close" with the Clinton administration.

Fisher also notes that founder Fred Baron, who died in 2008, also gave money to the mistress of Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards in what was widely seen as an attempt to cover up the affair.

Jindal, on the other hand, is considered a "rising star" in the Republican party and often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate. He's a Rhodes Scholar and right-winger who turned down $98 million in federal unemployment benefits for Louisiana for ideological reasons, Fisher noted.

"If Jindal hires Baron & Budd he'll be joining forces with a law firm whose history includes the sort of litigation tactics that send most Republicans reaching for their checkbooks to donate to a tort-reform group," Fisher wrote.

Fisher said the firm was criticized in the late 1990s after one of its lawyers inadvertently released a 20-page memo instructing asbestos plaintiffs not to remember seeing labels saying "warning" or "danger," and counseling them to remain vague about exactly whose products they handled. Baron & Budd defended the document as a memory aid. Lawyers on the other side called it witness coaching.

The firm eventually moved into Louisiana by hiring Baton Rouge attorney Burton LeBlanc, a well-connected lawyer who was heavily involved in efforts to reverse the state's law banning contingency-fee contracts with private attorneys. Jindal supported the bill, but it was blocked by business lobbyists in June.

State law allows Louisiana to recover the entire costs of the spill cleanup plus $75 million, and more if gross negligence is proved. In addition to prohibiting contingency-fee deals with outside lawyers, state law also requires mediation with BP.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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