Marionneaux’s Pot Boiling – With Him In It

State Sen. Rob Marionneaux (D-Grosse Tete) has long been something of a controversial figure at Louisiana’s legislature. But the senator, whose flamboyant style and left-liberal stance on most issues has made him a target for strong feelings on both sides of the political divide, is in the crosshairs after revelations that he may have used his legislative position as a personal tool for career enhancement.

At issue is a case Marionneaux worked on behalf of Bernhard Mechanical Contractors, which had a 2003 contract dispute with LSU involving a “co-generation plant” on LSU’s campus the company designed and built. The plant didn’t create the energy savings the two sides hoped for, and lawsuits and countersuits ensued in 2006. In 2008, Bernhard hired Marionneaux to take over its end of the case.

This is where things get a little hairy.

First of all, Marionneaux didn’t disclose his representation of Bernhard Mechanical to the state Board of Ethics. That violated the law, according to the board. Marionneaux would have had 10 days to disclose his representation; he never did so and told the Baton Rouge Advocate on Tuesday that he didn’t have to.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Marionneaux said the reporting requirement in state law does not apply to lawyers who are legislators. “The practice of law is regulated by the Supreme Court,” he said.

Ethics officials had offered to settle the case if he paid a $3,000 fine, but he declined, saying he will be exonerated from “frivolous charges.”

Marionneaux’s position is that he was operating as a lawyer in representing Bernhard, not a legislator. That might be considered a dubious position in itself, but it’s a little harder to defend in light of revelations by the Lafayette Advertiser that he co-sponsored a bill in the Legislature on June 10 to remove the disclosure requirement.

The LSU System’s general counsel Ray Lamonica also alleged, in a letter the Advocate obtained through a FOIA request, that Marionneaux said he would get the Legislature to appropriate funds to settle the Bernhard case – for which he was to be paid on a contingency basis. Marionneaux denies that statement, which Lamonica’s letter says was made at the Capitol – specifically in Senate President Joel Chaisson’s conference room – during last year’s legislative session (May 27, 2009) in a meeting with LSU officials. LSU’s Baton Rouge campus is in Marionneaux’s legislative district. 

According to the State Board of Ethics and Lamonica, Marionneaux told the LSU representatives Bernhard would settle the case for $7.1 million from LSU, plus a $5.5 million payment from the state secured through an appropriation. Lamonica told the Plaquemine Post-South that Marionneaux’s involvement was somewhat sudden and a bit unusual – Marionneaux just sort of dropped in and said he’d get the state to pick up the tab. LSU rejected the offer on June 1, saying that the university had no say in state appropriations.

“You indicated you needed a prompt response to be able to get the matter through the legislative session since the appropriation process is currently in the Senate and time is critical,” Lamonica wrote Marionneaux.

“Considering the issues in the on-going civil action with Bernhard, the totality of circumstances of our proposal, and the budge cuts resulting in the failure of LSU to receive funding in areas normally funded by the state, LSU cannot accept your proposal that the state (which we continue to believe has no legal obligation to Bernhard or LSU in the dispute) appropriate $5.5 million for the purpose of settlement with your client…”

LSU ended up paying Bernhard some $8 million; no indication of how much of that sum was paid to Marionneaux for his fee.

“If this is permissible conduct, then it shouldn’t be kept secret,” Lamonica said. “Everyone should know – most importantly the taxpayers.”

Lamonica said the filing of required disclosure reports prompt questions of whether the conduct is permissible. “The disclosure by itself does not make the conduct appropriate, but it increases the chances of it being evaluated,” he said.

Marionneaux, meanwhile, says none of this stuff is a big deal and that the ethics board is all wet.

“All the other stuff has been examined [by the ethics board] and found to be unfounded,” the senator said.

Marionneaux said a rule requiring the disclosure has “never been a rule before.” He said it was the result of an interpretation the new board of ethics made in May 2009.

“I think their interpretation is wrong,” he said. “We have never been required to file the report and should not be required now. The Supreme Court regulates the practice of law. I think the charge is unfounded in itself.”

Marionneaux refused to discuss whether he had tried to get state money allocated to settle the lawsuit or other aspects of the case.

“The only charge against me is failing to file a 10-day report,” he said.

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