Adley has a quick moment with fellow Republican Jack Donahue of Mandeville in a Capitol corridor. Credit: Tyler Bridges
At the meeting last week of a committee he chairs,  Sen. Robert Adley waits to testify on behalf of one of his bills seeking to crush a lawsuit against oil and gas interests.
At a Senate committee meeting last week, Sen. Robert Adley waits to testify on behalf of one of his bills seeking to crush a lawsuit against oil and gas interests. Credit: Tyler Bridges

Robert Adley rushed out of the state Senate chamber last week — past fellow politicians, past lobbyists wanting a minute of his time, past tourists visiting the state Capitol.

“Robert caught a little bird in the Senate,” explained Claudia Adley, his wife and unpaid aide, walking quickly to keep up with him. “It’s hurt.”

“It flew in,” chimed Adley, as he strode through the marble Capitol lobby, the bird’s head poking out from his cupped hands. Adley shouldered aside one of the Capitol’s front doors and opened his hands.

The bird needed no coaxing. “How about that,” Adley said, as it took off. “I felt sorry for the bird.”

Adley’s political foes should be so lucky.

During 27 years as a state lawmaker, Adley, a Republican ex-Marine from the Bossier Parish town of Benton, has gained a reputation as a tenacious fighter who either outsmarts or grinds down his opponents.

Adley’s political skills are on full display during the current legislative session. In stride with Gov. Bobby Jindal, Adley wants to kill a lawsuit filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority – East, the one that seeks to force 97 oil and gas companies to pay billions of dollars for repairs to the state’s collapsing coast.

Three Adley bills – Senate Bill 547, Senate Bill 553 and Senate Bill 629 — would permit the governor to kill the lawsuit while two others — Senate Bill 467 and Senate Bill 469 — would derail it by other means. The Senate approved Senate Bill 547 on Wednesday — it now heads to the House — and Adley’s Senate Transportation, Highways and Public Works Committee approved Senate Bill 553 on Thursday.

Another Adley measure, Senate Bill 79, would change the Flood Protection Authority’s nominating process by allowing the governor to select board members of his choosing.

That has drawn the opposition of Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, which pushed through the constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2006 that created the authority and sought to insulate it from political meddling. “Public safety, not politics, must govern the selection and appointment of SLFPA,” the group wrote Adley last month. Business leaders in New Orleans also oppose Senate Bill 79 for the same reason, said Jay Lapeyre, who chaired the New Orleans Business Council after Hurricane Katrina.

The flood authority’s lawsuit was filed last July and the Jindal camp, in league with oil, gas and pipeline interests, began fighting it immediately. As an opening salvo, the governor made clear that he would not reappoint former flood authority vice president John Barry, the best-selling author and flood expert who led the charge into court. Barry, in turn, has established a nonprofit group to continue pressing the lawsuit, with some funding from the trial lawyers handling it, as well as from the general public.

Meanwhile, four dozen high-priced oil and gas lobbyists in Baton Rouge are working to help Adley kill the lawsuit, said Randy Haynie, a high-priced lobbyist himself who has put together a team of seven to fend off Adley’s initiatives, and several other anti-lawsuit bills  filed by lawmakers.

Amid sharp debate, everyone seems to agree on one thing about Adley: “He’s one heck of a warrior,” as state Sen. President John Alario, R-Westwego, put it. “He’ll do his homework, and he’ll fight to the end.”

Shifting political allegiances, but loyal to oil

Adley, 66, has been difficult to catalogue throughout his career. He was a Democrat in the House and became a Republican in the Senate. An ally with the governor against the lawsuit, he has also been a thorn in Jindal’s side by championing measures that would force the governor to make more of his records public.

At times, he sides with big business. At other times, he sides with the little guy.

“Scripture does tell us something about usury,” Adley, a lay speaker in the Methodist Church, said during a press conference last week supporting bills that would limit the interest rates charged on payday loans. “I’m not sure it has to be zero. It ought to be fair.”

On the lawsuit, Adley is clearly siding with the oil and gas companies. Billions of dollars in damages are potentially at stake, and perhaps the coast’s future.

Supporters of the flood authority’s lawsuit note that Jindal’s much-praised $50 billion Master Plan to rebuild the wetlands is woefully underfunded. Making the oil and gas companies pay would be a major step toward solving that problem and would also help South Louisiana regain an important hurricane buffer.

Lawsuit supporters have come to harsh judgments about Adley.

“Adley goes to bat for Big Oil,” declared the headline on a James Gill column in The New Orleans Advocate.

[module align=”right” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]“He has carried a lot of legislation for the oil and gas industry over the years … I’ve never seen him carry one that he didn’t truly believe was the right thing to do.” —Don Briggs, Louisiana Oil & Gas Association[/module]Clancy DuBos’ column in Gambit noted Adley has long earned a living in the oil and gas business that his bills aim to protect. The headline: “Bidness as usual.”

Adley is well aware of his detractors.

“They’ve been carrying my head on sticks,” he said during one of three lengthy interviews in his state Senate office. “They’re calling me the face of Big Oil. That doesn’t bother me. I get excited when the public gets involved in an issue.”

But a minute later, he described the experience differently: “Nobody likes it when people say bad things about you. I’m no different than anyone else. But I’ve done my best to ignore it. I’m more interested in the facts.”

The facts, as with just about any litigation, are in dispute.

The flood authority’s lawsuit alleges that the oil and gas companies systematically destroyed the coastal wetlands by creating canals to drill wells and then failed to restore the wetlands as required under their permits.

Adley counters that the oil and gas companies did nothing illegal, that the dredged canals can’t simply be backfilled and that the flood authority’s procedure for authorizing the lawsuit was itself illegal.

“This is about money,” Adley said. “It’s not about repairing the coast.”

In criticizing the lawsuit, Jindal also argued that the flood authority didn’t have the right to file it. But rather than let a court resolve the dispute, the governor, Adley said, had aides ask him to use his political muscle to snuff out the litigation in Baton Rouge, where the oil and gas business has a reputation for getting its way.

Adley was a natural choice.

A fox guarding the henhouse?

He chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, which has jurisdiction over levees and has already heard the first of his three anti-lawsuit bills.

Besides, as his critics note, Adley is steeped in the oil and gas business.

He owned Pelican Gas Management from 1992 until he sold the business in 2012. The company managed natural gas supplies for small towns around the state through contracts with the Louisiana Municipal Gas Authority. In 2003, an Associated Press article questioned whether the gas authority awarded him the no-bid contracts thanks to his political office and influence — a suggestion he denied.

The business was lucrative. In 2002, the AP reported, he earned $259,000 from Pelican. Adley’s latest financial disclosure report shows that in 2012 he and his wife each earned at least $100,000, the highest reportable figure.

But Adley got a black mark at Pelican. In 1994, a jury found that Pelican undermined a competitor’s contract, a verdict that was upheld in 2000.* In an interview, Adley insisted he was an innocent party in a deal that went bad and said he wasn’t required to pay a penalty.

He now consults for gas companies, Adley said.

“He is against anything that touches the oil companies.”—Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, a former classmate of Adley’s

There’s no doubt the industry has been good to Adley, the politician. Oil and gas companies have dropped more than $150,000 into Adley’s Senate campaign kitty, reports Louisiana Voice. Adley has also raised thousands of dollars more from oil and gas interests to help him pay a $125,000 debt left from a failed 1995 campaign for governor. He still owes about $20,000, his latest campaign finance report shows.

Adley holds an annual fundraiser in Baton Rouge at the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association’s Jimmie Davis house, most recently on Feb. 27. It raised $15,000 to $20,000, Adley said. He cannot run for the Senate again because of term limits. So instead of using the money for his campaign, he said he will use it for Christmas cards and donations to local charitable and civic groups.

“He has carried a lot of legislation for the oil and gas industry over the years,” said Don Briggs, the industry association’s president. “I’ve never seen him carry one that he didn’t truly believe was the right thing to do.”

Adley’s numerous ties to the oil and gas industry have led critics to say he is the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse.

“For nine months of the year, he is the chief executive officer of a gas company,” said Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, the retired U.S. Army commander who led troops into New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. “For three months [during the legislative session], he represents the industry he is in,” said Honore; his Green Army, a nonprofit environmental group, is fighting Adley’s legislative effort.

Adley said calls that he should recuse himself from the issue because of his industry ties are “un-American” and “outrageous.”

“It’s what I know,” Adley said. “Is it wrong to have someone dealing with legislation they know?”

He said that state legislators who work as educators sponsor education legislation — and the same is true of those in the insurance business.

Clearly, though, Adley is sensitive to the criticism.

Last week, his committee heard a bill of his that would make it more difficult for pipeline companies to abandon pipe they’ve laid down. “It’s good for the public to see that they [the oil and gas industry] don’t support everything I do,” he pointedly told those in the committee room.

Adley’s target was a Boston hedge fund that owns a Louisiana pipeline it has threatened to abandon unless it is allowed to build a new one. His legislation, Adley said, would protect the consumer. Several small-town mayors testified that their customers will face sharply higher bills if the hedge fund abandons the pipeline and builds another one. They praised Adley.

The gas pipeline industry opposes the bill but muted its concerns that day.

The committee hearing showed how Adley has mastered the public bonhomie that can grease the passage of legislation.

When state Sen. David Heitmeier, D-New Orleans, entered the committee hearing several minutes late, Adley called to him, “You vote for mine [legislation]. I’ll vote for yours.” The committee room erupted in laughter.

Later, after the small-town mayors had endorsed his bill, Adley looked around the room. “I can’t imagine we’ll have any opposition,” he said. Laughter broke out again. Opposing a chairman’s bill invites political retribution.

Adley next examined the list of gas pipeline lobbyists who had noted their opposition to his bill. “We’ll get to the bad guys,” he said, “the hired guns.” It wasn’t clear whether he was being funny or issuing a warning — or both.

Fight with regulators leads to a life in politics

Adley was not born to the power he now wields in Baton Rouge. His father was 18 and his mother was 16 when he was born. Adley was five — he still remembers the day — when his father got his high school equivalency diploma.

Adley had his own troubles with schooling. He barely cracked a book or went to class at Louisiana Tech and lasted only six weeks. With no other option, he enlisted in the Marines. He spent a year in Vietnam as a courier carrying classified documents. Back in Louisiana, he became a plumber’s helper, working 60-80 hours a week at minimum wage without overtime pay.

His boss “probably did the biggest favor for me that anybody ever did,” Adley reminisced. “He finally told me one day, ‘I’ll never pay you overtime. You can work here as long as you want to. But you’ll never get overtime from me.’ I asked him why. He said, ‘I believe some day you are destined to do bigger things, and if I start paying you overtime, you’re going to think you’re making pretty good money, and you’re never going to go do those things. You can work here as long as you want to, but that’s all I’m going to pay you.’”

[module align=”left” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]“My daddy gave me one piece of advice. ‘When you get to Baton Rouge, the only thing you take is my good name. Bring it home.’” —State Sen. Robert Adley[/module]

Adley got into the securities business but was accused of fraud in connection with the marketing of wells that were never drilled. While not admitting or denying the accusation, Adley “consented with the order by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission that officially put him on notice about breaking the law. In an interview, Adley said he did nothing illegal but accepted the deal to avoid a long and expensive legal battle with the federal agency. He said he later chose not to renew his security license.**

What he described as mistreatment by the federal government led him to decide to enter politics.

He was elected to the state House in 1979. “My daddy gave me one piece of advice,” Adley said. “‘When you get to Baton Rouge, the only thing you take is my good name. Bring it home.’ I’ve tried to stick by that.”

In the meantime, Adley became a wildcat oil driller. He did well initially, but suffered along with nearly everyone else during the mid-1980s Oil Bust. He then got into the gas pipeline business and prospered.

Adley gained prominence as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee from 1988 to 1992 when the Legislature had to make deep cuts in the budget, including closing three public hospitals. “He played a key role in helping us balance the budget four years in a row,” then-Gov. Buddy Roemer said in an interview, adding that the state had fallen deeper and deeper into debt during the Oil Bust..

In 1995, when Roemer failed to win back the Governor’s Mansion, Adley, then a Democrat, also ran for governor. He finished seventh in the open primary — to Roemer’s fourth — with less than 2 percent of the vote. He attacked Roemer as an enemy of oil and gas, attacks that still smart. “He’s got a dog in the hunt,” Roemer said, noting Adley’s longtime oil and gas ties.

Adley was elected to the state Senate in 2003 to fill an unexpired term and has been re-elected three times without opposition.

In 2010, Adley sponsored a bill that sought to shut down the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic after oil, gas and chemical industry representatives complained to him about lawsuits the clinic filed against member companies. The bill died in the wake of the BP oil spill.

Now Adley’s target is the lawsuit.

Fundamental disagreements over the lawsuit

His first argument: “They all followed the law. You’re suing people for doing what they were told to do [by government regulators]. That’s bad policy.” If the regulators failed to make the oil and gas companies restore the wetlands, he added, the fault lies with the regulators.

Barry’s reply: “If they can demonstrate to me that the industry went to the regulator and said: ‘We’re done. How do you want us to restore it?’ That might be defensible. But that didn’t happen. … The industry made sure for years that regulators did not enforce regulations.”

[module align=”left” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]”You have corrupt people suing people who followed the law, who did what they were told to do.” —Adley, speaking of the coastal erosion lawsuit[/module]Adley notes that fishermen and oystermen also cleared canals. “Boudreaux makes a fishing camp on a canal. Are you going to sue him, too?”

Barry: “We’re going after oil companies because they broke the law. Period. They are under specific legal contracts to restore what they destroyed. Oystermen and fishermen are not under any obligation legally to restore what they destroyed. They didn’t get permits.”

Barry noted that government and industry studies blame a share of the coastal loss on the oil and gas companies.

Adley’s second argument: The lawsuit is “bad science” because the wetlands that would be used to backfill the dredged canals have “a consistency of sugar. You will have nothing there.”

Barry said that the canals would be backfilled when feasible. When it is not, the flood authority would use the money it receives “to invest in projects that would benefit the master plan.”

Adley’s third argument: The Flood Protection Authority discussed plans for the lawsuit in executive sessions that were “illegal” because public notices were not issued properly. “They admit they hid it,” Adley said. “Barry admitted he broke the law. That’s corrupt. You have corrupt people suing people who followed the law, who did what they were told to do.”

Barry’s response: “We followed the advice of counsel. We gave proper notice and conformed with the law.” Barry acknowledged that the notices for executive session hearings — “Discussion of future litigation strategy” — were deliberately vague to avoid tipping off the oil and gas industry.

Foster Campbell went to grade school and high school with Adley, preceded him in the state Senate district Adley represents today and now serves on the Public Service Commission. “He is against anything that touches the oil companies,” said Campbell, a Democrat. “I think a judge should decide the case, not a bunch of politicians.”

So why not allow the courts to settle the lawsuit?

“It’s a shakedown,” Adley said. “You cannot send a message to America and the world that if you want to do business in Louisiana, even if you follow the law, we’ll sue you.”

In his basement office at the Capitol, photos of Adley with famous politicians compete for space with framed newspaper articles heralding political triumphs.

Adley leaned forward in his chair and mentioned a recent appearance on WWL-AM radio. A caller said he should adhere to a recent poll showing that most voters favor the lawsuit.

Adley’s response: “My job has never been to find a parade and get in front of it and enrich my political career. My job is to look at the facts and, based on what the facts say, lead.”

*Correction: This story mischaracterized a legal judgment against Adley’s company in the 1990s. A civil jury found that the company had wrongfully induced a breach in a competitor’s contract. The story has been corrected. (April 8, 2014)

**Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said the Securities and Exchange Commission forced Adley to give up his securities license, and it incorrectly referred to the agreement as a “penalty.” (April 9, 2014)

Tyler Bridges

Tyler Bridges covers Louisiana politics and public policy for The Lens. He returned to New Orleans in 2012 after spending the previous year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, where he studied digital journalism....