Zurik: From casinos to cabs, concerns about ethics dog NOLA senator

Zurik: From casinos to cabs, concerns about ethics dog NOLA senator
Updated: May. 21, 2018 at 10:15 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A bill designed to standardize rules for Uber and Lyft across Louisiana sailed through the state's House of Representatives in April with 97 yay votes, only one against. But when that bill made it to the State Senate, it died.

"I'm not sure we get a different result, so I would prefer voluntarily deferring at this point," said House Speaker Taylor Barras after he was questioned about the bill before the Senate Judiciary A Committee.

For the second straight year, that committee declined to support the reform, which already has been approved in 45 states.

"Give me an example whereby someone from some other part of the state of Louisiana would be, I guess, disenfranchised," asked one member of Judiciary A, Sen. Wesley Bishop of New Orleans.

"How often is it that you have individuals, I guess, from outside the city of New Orleans who come to the city of New Orleans for events like that?" Bishop asked bill supporters in another exchange at Jud A.

What many in the audience and even on the dais didn't know: Wesley Bishop, one of the senators peppering Uber and Lyft with questions, works for a law firm that represents the taxicab industry.

Attorney Ira Middleberg has filed public records requests to the city, asking questions about transportation network companies such as Uber or Lyft. The firm has sued Uber drivers in Jefferson Parish and in federal court. The firm represents 51 taxi drivers and companies in a lawsuit against Uber.

The Middleberg website lists Sen. Bishop as an attorney at the firm. So, while the firm where Bishop works is suing Uber, the state senator himself opposed the Uber bill moving through the legislature, without ever disclosing a potential conflict of interest.

"Under the Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct, a lawyer who is engaged in law reform activities typically has to disclose that one of his clients would have an interest in the outcome of the legislative process," says Loyola law professor Dane Ciolino, a widely-cited expert on legal ethics.

An email from Sen. Bishop's spokesperson insists Bishop does not have a conflict of interest in the matter:

Mr. Bishop has an independent, 'of counsel' contractual relationship with the Middleberg Riddle Group law firm (MRG); he is not an employee, partner, officer, director or trustee. He has no ownership interests, of any sort, in the firm.

Mr. Bishop does not have a conflict of interest in this matter. In the 20 months that he has been a contract attorney with MRG, he has not worked on any cases for MRG and has never received any money from MRG. None. Zero.

Mr. Bishop's contact with the firm has been extremely limited. He does not, nor has he ever had, any knowledge of the day-to-day client operations of MRG. The firm does not discuss client relationships or client matters with 'of counsel' attorneys unless they are involved in the matter. Mr. Bishop has a very limited law practice. His primary professional occupation is that of a University Administrator.

Mr. Bishop is not involved in the Uber litigation matter and is not listed on the pleadings. This matter was not discussed with Mr. Bishop at any time. The 2017 and 2018 bills regarding Uber were deferred when they came before Judiciary A committee. As such, no votes were ever taken.

According to Dane Ciolino, there's little in this statement that fully addresses the ethics conflict at hand.

"Payment is really irrelevant when it comes to the duty to disclose clients interested in law reform activities or the duty to deal with any conflicts," Ciolino tells us. And he says, "The general principal is that the conflicts of one lawyer are the conflicts of all lawyers in the firm. He has an obligation to be aware of who the clients of his firm are, for conflicts purposes, and to clear any possible conflicts."

Ciolino notes that Bishop would not have been required to disclose the name of the firm's client in a potential conflict; he'd only have to say he has such a conflict.

This isn't the first time we've questioned the relationship between Bishop, Middleberg and clients. In early May, we uncovered that Harrah's hired Middleberg as a lobbyist at the same time Bishop was negotiating the Harrah's bill on behalf of the state.

After our reporting, Bishop voted against the Harrah's bill, which ultimately failed.

Ciolino says any potential conflict of interest would be investigated by the Louisiana Supreme Court, which put these rules in place for a reason.

"It's important so that, when law reform activities are taking place and a lawyer is speaking for or against proposed legislation," Ciolino says, "that everyone understands the lawyer may be suggesting a change in the law because it might help or hurt one of his clients."

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