Louisiana Lawmaker’s Financial Ties to Oil Industry Expose Stunning Conflict of Interest in “Legacy Lawsuit” Battle

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Oil companies in Louisiana are facing hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental cleanup costs, but not if state Representative Neil “Mr. Oil” Abramson can help it.

This week, Louisiana state lawmakers began considering legislation surrounding so-called “legacy lawsuits” – property-owner claims against oil companies for failing to clean up a “legacy” of land and groundwater contamination left behind from decades of hazardous production operations.

The fireworks have already begun, as the opposing sides face off in a fierce legislative fight.

Landowners want their day in court to force oil companies to clean up the contamination – including lead, benzene and radioactive radium-226 – that, in some cases, has been poisoning private property since the 1950s. Not surprisingly, the oil companies don’t want to pay for a thorough cleanup of the toxic waste, which (unfortunately for them) they are contractually obligated to do.

So without a legal leg to stand on, the industry has turned to its supporters in the state legislature – like Rep. Neil Abramson – in an effort to pass legislation that would inhibit the right of property owners to sue the responsible oil companies. In essence, the industry is doing a legislative end run around legally binding contracts requiring a  full environmental cleanup. They want to delay the trial by forcing landowners to go hat in hand to Department of natural resources to beg for a fair clean up before going to court. Abramson and the oil companies know justice delayed is justice denied.

State Rep. Neil Abramson is the industry’s legislative ace in the hole.

You see, Mr. Abramson is one of the oil industry’s own. He fights the same battles. He has the same friends. He eats from the same trough. And I mean that in the most literal sense.

Abramson, in addition to being a current member of the state legislature, just happens to be a shareholder and member of the law firm Liskow & Lewis. And take a wild guess at what industry Liskow & Lewis – and Mr. Abramson, the attorney – represent. That’s right, the oil industry, both domestic and foreign companies. In fact, just to give you an idea of the type of law firm we’re dealing here, BP is a client of Liskow & Lewis. Closer to home, Abramson and his law firm represent oil companies involved in the “legacy lawsuit” battle in the state legislature.

Consider this damning profile from the Liskow & Lewis firm website:

Neil Abramson is a shareholder in the firm’s New Orleans office. His practice includes the areas of toxic torts, class action litigation, insurance coverage and defense litigation, maritime personal injury, and products liability.

Since 2008, Mr. Abramson has served as the State Representative for the 98th District of Louisiana. Prior to his public service, he was an attorney with Phelps Dunbar and served as a judicial clerk for The Honorable Frank J. Polozola, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana.

Recent Representative Matters:
Representation of numerous chemical manufacturing companies in defense of class action cases involving the release of various chemicals. These incidents generally result in thousands of individual claims for personal injury, property damage, business interruption, and inconvenience.

Representation of domestic and foreign insurance companies in defense of Hurricane Katrina claims, including issues involving the water damage exclusion, Valued Policy Law (VPL), and adjustment practices.

Representation of oil and gas companies in legacy suits involving claims of property and groundwater contamination.

Can you say “conflict of interest”? I assume Rep. Abramson is familiar with the term, being an attorney and all.

But wait, it gets worse. I should mention that Rep. Abramson, as chairman of the Louisiana House Civil Law Committee, has authored an industry-backed bill that aims to strip Louisiana landowners of their right to initially pursue land and ground water contamination damages against major oil companies in a court of law. Sounds sketchy, right? That’s because it is.

Rep. Abramson’s bill, if passed, would take primary jurisdiction away from the courts in these contamination suits and drop it into the bureaucratic morass that is the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the agency that regulates the oil and gas industry in the state. Why is that such a bad idea? Mainly because the Louisiana DNR – just like its federal counterpart – is staffed with former industry officials, who are loyal to their business cronies. DNR’s ever-spinning revolving door turns industry players into government regulators.

So Abramson finds himself in the middle of a serious conflict-of-interest scandal. State ethics law prohibits a public official from receiving anything of economic value, other than his governmental compensation, for performing his public duties. You have to ask yourself how much money and favor Mr. Abramson will reap if he pushes his bill into law.

I urge the House ethics committee to open an investigation into the actions of Rep. Neil Abramson as they pertain to current “legacy lawsuit” legislation. There appears to be a fox “guarding” the hen house.

Read my April 17 post detailing how Louisiana’s biggest oil producer, Hilcorp Energy, is violating its contractual obligation to clean up toxic waste in the Erath Oil and Gas Field: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/not-so-fine-print-louisianas-largest-oil-producer-tramples-on-contractual-obligation-to-clean-up-toxic-waste

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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