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.
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:
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."