Judge: Governor’s Office Blameless in Public Records Dispute

BATON ROUGE, La. (CN) – Louisiana Governor John Bel Edward’s office complied with the records law when it turned over no documents pertaining to a records request from environmentalists seeking documents related to a proposed pipeline, a state judge ruled Friday.

State District Court Judge Wilson Fields denied the Louisiana Bucket Brigade’s request to order the governor’s office to search again for records related to all correspondence between the governor, his staff and companies involved in the pipeline company’s proposal to build a 163-mile pipeline that will come into contact with eight watersheds and cut through fragile wetlands.

After the governor’s office told the Bucket Brigade several times it had no relevant records this fall, it gave an email between staff members about a meeting between the governor and a lobbyist for the pipeline to a journalist.

After the Advocate ran a story last month that mentioned the meeting, Edward’s office sent the Bucket Brigade the email and explained it had conducted a new records search.

Fields said in his ruling from the bench Friday that the governor’s office “tried to adhere to” the Bucket Brigade’s request on a few different occasions to make sure the documents they were seeking were furnished.

“The Office of the Governor has produced and provided the documents they have in their possession – they have complied with the public record request,” Fields said.

Edward’s office turned over a “slim volume” of emails to the Louisiana Bucket Brigade related to its correspondence with lobbyist and others for the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, attorney Pamela Spees said during the hearing, but only after a journalist for the Advocate obtained the documents through a separate records request of her own.

Spees said the group is concerned records are still missing.

Matthew Block, custodian of records for the governor’s office testified Friday that the office “not by any malicious intent, but by accident,” did not find any records – emails or other correspondence, including calendar events – that pertained to the Bayou Bridge Pipeline.

Block testified that when the group asked for records related to the governor’s correspondence with the pipeline company and its affiliates, he took that to mean the environmentalists wanted to know if meetings had been scheduled – he thought the inquiry was about the governor’s calendar, he said.

Block further testified that after the group’s first request, sent in early October, turned up no relevant records and the group re-phrased the request to include specific names, he thought they wanted only external correspondences.

“I just want to be clear,” Block told Spees, referring to the email correspondence the Advocate obtained, “That record was an internal record. You did not ask for that.”

A January 16, 2018 email from the governor’s office alerted the Bucket Brigade it may not have searched its records correctly and said the agency would search again.

The next day, January 17, the Advocate ran a story in which it referred to documents obtained from the governor’s office that showed the governor had met with a lobbyist for Energy Transfer Partners – Mary Landrieu, a former Democratic senator from New Orleans, to talk about the Bayou Bridge Pipeline last year.

Energy Transfer Partners is majority owner of the pipeline, which is also owned by Phillips 66 and Sunoco.

The companies plan to build the pipeline from Lake Charles to St. John.

If built as proposed, the pipeline will cut through 700 bodies of water in southeast Louisiana, including the Atchafalaya Basin, the largest remaining wetland swamp in the U.S.

The Atchafalaya is known for its vast cypress-tupelo swamps and also for being the largest remaining contiguous tract of coastal cypress trees in the country.

Spees argued Friday that the names and titles included in the correspondence the Advocate obtained should have come up during any records’ search undertaken by the governor’s office.

Especially, she said, as the email contained “bayou bridge info” in its subject line.

Block said that the search didn’t turn anything up was nothing more than a simple mistake.

Tina Vanichchagorn, a lawyer for the governor’s office, said staff had conducted an in-depth search for the environmental group.

“We cast a wide net,” Vanichchagorn said.

Vanichchagorn underscored that the records were located for the Advocate.

“We freely gave the records to a journalist,” she said.

Among records the governor’s office turned over January 26 was an email from a lobbying firm representing the pipeline company proposing that Edwards speak about the pipeline during a telephone press conference prior to a public comment hearing held in February 2017.

“Does JBE need to participate?” a staff member questioned of the proposal.

“I don’t think he should,” Richard Carbo, a spokesman for the governor’s office, replied.

Spees, during closing arguments Friday, said when the governor’s office did not locate the records requested, she and the Bucket Brigade kept giving new specifics to help “assist with narrowing the scope.”

That “is not on the plaintiff to do that,” Spees said.

She went on to say that “records requests are inherently complicated” and that the governor’s office had turned up one for them that was “defective.”

Spees reiterated that the Bucket Brigade wanted more information and would like an additional search for missing records.

“We now know this meeting [between ETP lobbyist Mary Landrieu and Governor Edwards] did happen. It was set for January 30 [2017],” Spees said. “Now the question is, why is there no record? Didn’t anyone go with him? Why were there no notes?”

Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Bucket Brigade, said the missing information is unsettling.

She said the first thing she wants to see are notes from the meeting between Edwards and Landrieu.

“I was curious when I walked in, and now I’m alarmed,” Rolfes said. “What are they trying to hide?”

Landrieu faced sharp criticism during her time as a senator due to the opinion held by many that she is in the pocket of the oil and gas industry.

She spoke in favor of the pipeline during a public comment hearing in February 2017 to loud jeers and obscene gestures from those who oppose it.

“How much do you get paid?” one audience member yelled.

“Mary Landrieu is a liar.” another said.

At the hearing, Landrieu said the pipeline will contribute to the nation’s energy independence.

Most of those who support the pipeline also say it will create much needed jobs.

Opponents say the pipeline would, among other things, cause significant harm to the region’s crawfishing industry, harm the wetlands it crosses through, and pose a threat to drinking water.

Rolfes said Friday that Edwards is only looking at one side of the pipeline story.

“If the governor didn’t want to the pipeline to be built, he could stop it,” she said. “Instead, he is standing up for an out of state company with a horrible record for pollution.”

 

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