Zurik: NOLA council pres. opposes Harrah's deal amid lobbying blitz

New Orleans' City Council president says the potential conflicts detailed in our latest FOX 8 probe need to be investigated further. Those conflicts involve an army of lobbyists hired by Harrah's to push a 30-year license extension through Louisiana's legislature.

One example: For four years and five months, Jade Brown Russell served as general counsel for Harrah's in New Orleans and Biloxi. Shortly after she left that position, she continued to lobby for Harrah's Casino, making $60,000 in one year.

In November, Russell received a six-figure job at the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans as their general counsel. At the same time, she's still lobbying for Harrah's Casino.

"You can't represent the Sewerage and Water Board - which I consider to be part of the state and part of the city, in terms of its needing money - and also represent Harrah's," U.S. Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana told us in an interview this week. "Those are two competing interests."

Our story revealed that New Orleans attorney Ira Middleberg has been lobbying on behalf of Harrah's, while two of his law partners - JP Morrell and Wesley Bishop, both state senators from New Orleans - have been negotiating on behalf of the state.

Neither Morell nor Bishop have indicated whether they would recuse themselves from any potential vote on the license extension.

Our story showed the City of New Orleans' lobbying firm, Southern Strategy Group, also lobbies for Harrah's Casino.

"This whole thing is just incestuous," Kennedy told us.

New Orleans Council Pres. Jason Williams says, right now, he's against the Harrah's deal.

"Why rush?" Williams asks. "The lease isn't up for another... to 2024, I think. And I'm not saying we shouldn't reach a deal. I just feel like there should be more money on the table, specifically for the City of New Orleans.

The city's lobbyist told us in a statement this was no conflict of interest, and Harrah's and the city's interests are "in alignment".

The council president disagrees with the city's lobbyist.

"I'm not happy with the deal," he says. "Clearly everyone is not in alignment. if everyone is in alignment, the deal would be done. And the deal is certainly not done."

Williams says the findings in our story were worth investigating further" You cut into an onion and there appear to be multiple layers of that," he says. "I haven't investigated the potential conflicts myself."

Photo Copyright (c) 2010. Eric Pancer. Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution).

Harrah's has 21 lobbyists listed on the state Ethics Board's website, pushing to get a deal done at the State Capitol.

"This thing just cries out to be defeated," Kennedy told us. "We need to wait. We need to go hire a financial analyst who understand casinos to put a value on license. You know where we got the purported value for the license? Harrah's."

We reached out to Gov. John Bel Edwards for a comment on our story; his press office never responded.

"He is telling us every day; the state is broke," Kennedy said. "The state's broke and we're going to have to raise your taxes... Well, maybe if we did a better deal with Harrah's, we wouldn't have to raise those taxes quite as high."

Mayor Latoya Cantrell declined our request for further comment but told us Wednesday she supports Russell.

The next vote on the Harrah's deal could come Monday in a La. Senate committee hearing. The U.S. Senator told us his advice to his state counterparts would be to hit the brakes.

"I'm begging the Senate, you know, please just wait," he said.

In a statement Wednesday, Jade Brown Russell told us, "There is no conflict of interest in the firm having a contract with a private company that has absolutely no connection to S&WB or its legal department."

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