Judge: Governor's Office Complied With Public Records Law Over Pipeline Project

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards' office complied with Louisiana's public records law in responding to an environmental group's request for documents about an oil pipeline project, a judge ruled Friday.

State District Court Judge Wilson Fields refused to order Edwards' office to conduct another search for records requested by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

The group asked for records of meetings or communications between Edwards' staff and representatives of companies building the Bayou Bridge pipeline in south Louisiana.

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Edwards' office said a search error initially prevented it from retrieving emails about a January 2017 meeting between Edwards and former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a consultant for one of the pipeline companies.

Bucket Brigade attorney Pamela Spees argued the mistake suggests a more complete search could turn up additional records.

"We're concerned there is more there in light of how this has played out," she said.

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Emails about the meeting between Edwards and Landrieu contained the words "bayou bridge info" in the subject line. The Bucket Brigade said it learned about those emails from a newspaper report on Jan. 17, more than a month after the group sued the governor's office.

Tina Vanichchagorn, a lawyer for the governor's office, said staff members "cast a wide net" in searching for records requested by the group. The latest response from the governor's office also included January 2017 emails about an invitation for Edwards to speak about the pipeline project during a telephone news conference organized by a public relations firm working for the companies.

"Does (Edwards) need to participate?" a scheduler asked Richard Carbo, a spokesman for the governor's office.

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"I don't think he should," Carbo replied.

Anne Rolfes, the Bucket Brigade's founding director, questioned why the meeting between Edwards and Landrieu wasn't on the governor's calendar.

"I was curious when we walked into this courtroom, and I'm walking out alarmed," she said. "What do they have to hide?"

Carbo said the judge's ruling affirms that the governor's office has fully complied with the group's requests.

Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners plans to build the 162-mile-long (261-kilometer), 24-inch-wide (60-centimeter-wide) pipeline from Lake Charles to St. James Parish, a path that crosses the environmentally fragile Atchafalaya Basin.

Other environmental groups sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last month in an effort to block construction of the pipeline. The federal lawsuit accuses the Corps of violating the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws when it approved a permit for the project in December.

On Tuesday, a federal judge refused to order a temporary halt to construction pending a court hearing next week. U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick said she reviewed the Corps' environmental assessment for the project and "cannot find that the Corps was arbitrary and capricious" in its review.

Rolfes claimed the governor is only "hearing one side of the story" about the pipeline project.

"If the governor doesn't want this pipeline to be built, he could stop it now," she added. "Instead, he's standing up for an out-of-state oil company with a track record of pollution, instead of the little guy in Louisiana."

After the hearing, Bucket Brigade attorney Bill Quigley said the group plans to submit another request for public records about any meetings between the governor's office and company representatives.

"It stretches the imagination to believe that the governor's office doesn't know who the lobbyists are for Bayou Bridge Pipeline, particularly since (Landrieu) used to be a U.S. senator for this state," Quigley said.

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