Mayor Landrieu chalks up court victory in power struggle over Wisner Trust

Forrest Travirca, a Wisner field inspector, holds a clump of tar that washed ashore in June (John Snell)
Forrest Travirca, a Wisner field inspector, holds a clump of tar that washed ashore in June (John Snell)

New Orleans, La. -- A federal judge sided with the Landrieu administration in an ongoing power struggle with the heirs of Edward Wisner, ruling that the Wisner Donation can switch attorneys in the lawsuit over the 2010 BP oil spill.

Several weeks ago, the Wisner trust board voted 3-2 to dismiss the law firm it had contracted with shortly after the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, substituting the same attorneys the city hired for its claim.

The city received the multi-million dollar donation in 1914.  After heirs challenged the will, an out-of-court-settlement led to the creation of the Wisner Donation, which benefits roughly 40 heirs, the City of New Orleans, LSU, Tulane University and the Salvation Army. Most the money goes to the city and the heirs, but each organization has one vote on the Wisner board.

At the mayor's urging, board members dismissed the environmental firm Waltzer and Wiygul in favor of the city's team of attorneys, some of whom are on the Plaintiff's Steering Committee that has reached a settlement with BP.

"We've never faced anything like this," said Cathy Norman, the Wisner Donation Secretary-Treasurer.

Norman said she and the board members were caught off guard when the city's representative, Mike Sherman, first raised objections to the attorneys.

"There was nothing but praise" for Waltzer and Wiygul, Norman said. "Everything was done with the approval of the committee."

Some of the disagreement involves whether the Wisner Donation amounts to a private or public entity. Landrieu aides insist the trust should be subject to the same public procurement procedures as city agencies.

"When we came into office, we reformed the procurement and contracting process," said Ryan Berni, the mayor's Director of Communications, in an e-mail.  "We are now moving forward with publicly-bid lawyers."

The Wisner Donation suffered perhaps the largest effects of any single landowner during the 2010 spill. Wisner owns 60 percent of the land under Port Fourchon and nine miles of contiguous beach in Lafourche Parish. The beach was heavily oiled during the spill.

"Coastal erosion of this piece of property has reached an all-time high," Norman said. "We're at a crisis."

Norman worries about the additional strain of oil and heavy equipment working the beach, where a restoration project has already been delayed because of the spill.

"I don't know what would happen if one of these [tropical] storms in the next month or so were to hit this beach," Norman said.  "It's in very bad shape."

If Wisner were to join the overall BP settlement deal, Norman fears it would surrender any rights to punitive damages.

"It's my understanding that there would be no money for restoration," Norman said.

In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court last week, the Wisner heirs contended the city's attorneys would bring a conflict of interest to the case.

The new attorneys countered with a legal opinion from law professor Basile Uddo, who wrote representing two clients against a common defendant "creates a conflict of interest only if there is a significant risk that the representation of one client will be materially limited by counsel's responsibilities to another client."

In denying the Wisner heirs' claim, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier ruled that "the mere fact that the City and the Donation may have different types of claims does not create an actual conflict."

Thursday night, a spokesman for the Wisner heirs vowed to file an appeal.  "We feel very confident that we have several conflicts of interest that will be addressed in a filing" as early as next week, the spokesman said.