A Louisiana State Police vehicle in the French Quarter in January 2020. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

A law firm in Washington, D.C. is collecting $1,000 an hour to help shield the Louisiana State Police from a federal civil-rights investigation.

The white-shoe firm, WilmerHale, was given the contract to defend LSP from a sweeping investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice spurred by evidence of racial discrimination and use of excessive force.

WilmerHale was initially contracted to provide professional legal services “in connection with  matters involving the federal government and consent decrees” in November 2023 by governor-elect Jeff Landry, who won the office in October but continued to serve as attorney general until he took office in January.

The firm’s initial contract was for three months, starting in November and expiring on January 31, 2024. WilmerHale’s rate was set at an eye-popping $750 per hour, capped at a total of $300,000.

For the firm’s second, current contract, obtained by The Lens this week, LSP directly contracted with WilmerHale – signing the agreement in April, but backdating the start of the contract to February 1. It is a one-year contract with a $2 million cap. 

The contract stipulates a $1,000 hourly rate for all work done by the firm, including two named WilmerHale partners — Ed O’Callaghan, a former high-level DOJ official under President Donald Trump, and Aaron Zebley, a former FBI special agent and federal prosecutor. 

The agreement includes an option to extend the contract for two more years, under the same terms. 

It took The Lens two months and a lawsuit to view the second contract, which The Lens requested through a public-records request in March. 

After no contract was supplied by the Department of Public Safety, which includes the Louisiana State Police, The Lens sued in the 19th Judicial District Court of East Baton Rouge on April 29, represented by the First Amendment Law Clinic at Tulane University Law School.

On May 30, Baton Rouge judge Eboni Johnson Rose ruled that the contract was a public record, and ordered DPS to turn it over to The Lens. 

Justice Department looks into LSP

In the summer of 2022, the federal Justice Department opened a civil-right investigation into misconduct by the Louisiana State Police, after several state troopers were implicated in high-profile instances of alleged brutality against Black men, including Ronald Green in 2019. 

After an investigation, the Associated Press — which first published body-camera footage of troopers beating and dragging Green following a high-speed chase in north Louisiana — found at least a dozen other instances of troopers or LSP leadership attempting to cover up or ignore evidence of beatings and misconduct. 

The DOJ opened the LSP investigation because of information that provided “significant justification to investigate whether [LSP] engages in excessive force and engages in racially discriminatory policing against Blackesidents and other people of color,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kristen Clark said.

Such inquiries by the DOJ, called “pattern or practice investigations,” can result in a letter that outlines its findings, such as racial bias and excessive use of force, along with systemic factors that may have contributed to misconduct. Then, sometimes negotiations can lead to a resolution. But not always. The result that Louisiana officials seem to fear the most is a consent decree, which puts a federal judge in charge of the required reforms and the agency’s progress on those reforms. 

Nearly two years ago, Gov. John Bel Edwards and former LSP Superintendent Lamar Davis made statements welcoming the DOJ investigation and promising to cooperate with federal investigators. 

Then, in November, the state seemed to be taking matters into its own hands, when Liz Murrill, then Landry’s chief deputy in the AG’s office, announced the AG’s contract with WilmerHale. The firm would conduct its own “top to bottom self-assessment” of the state police, and “engage” the DOJ in their investigation, she said. Murrill succeeded Landry as attorney general.

The November contract simply said that the firm would “provide professional legal services to the state in connection with matters involving the federal government and consent decrees.” It is unclear whether the firm completed the top-to-bottom review that Murrill described six months ago. The AG’s office did not respond to questions from The Lens, and a public records request for documents related to work done for the contract is pending.

Murrill’s longtime ally, Landry, has railed against the New Orleans Police Department’s ongoing federal consent decree, which stemmed from a similar federal investigation into officer misconduct. 

In December, Murrill told the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate that she also hoped to avoid a similar result. “We would always prefer not to end up with a federal consent decree,” she said. “They tend to run for a very long time and be very expensive for taxpayers.”

But some believe that the state’s priorities are misplaced, because it is spending millions to thwart an investigation.

“Taxpayers should not be burdened by unreasonably high costs associated with defense of unconstitutional conduct by LSP,” said Alanah Odoms, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, which called for the DOJ to launch an investigation of the state police in 2021 by preparing a series of detailed memoranda about 13 specific excessive force and constitutional rights violations. 

“LSP should be investing in additional training and resources to change its violent behavior,” Odoms said, “not wasting resources in this manner.”

Contract price tags raise scrutiny

The new contract, with its higher price tag, has a more specific description about the firm’s role: “defending” the state police “against” the DOJ investigation. The contract also notes that the work produced by WilmerHale can be used to defend against other civil-rights claims against the department and the state more generally. 

Still, the Louisiana State Police defend the contract’s cost. It has “monumental implications for the State of Louisiana,” wrote Capt. Nick Manale, an LSP spokesman, in an email message to The Lens, citing the “incredibly specific expertise” of WilmerHale.

“Very few law firms have this expertise nationally, let alone in Louisiana,” Manale wrote.

Yet if LSP practices merit a consent decree, some critics ask if the state should be paying so much money to dodge federal oversight.

Indeed, one of WilmerHale’s specialties, it appears, is DOJ investigations into local law enforcement, although their work in some well-known places has still resulted in federal oversight. The firm was hired by the city of Baltimore after the high-profile, in-custody 2015 death of Freddie Gray led to a DOJ investigation – followed by a consent decree in 2016. The city of Chicago also brought on WilmerHale after the 2014 police killing of Laquan McDonald and subsequent DOJ investigation – which also led to a consent decree, in 2019.

Within law-enforcement circles, the firm’s steep rate is not unheard of. Chicago reportedly paid WilmerHale $1,200 per hour, a decade ago.

But in Louisiana, the rate far exceeds most other state legal contracts, including ones for seemingly similar work. For instance, around the same time that Landry signed the November contract with WilmerHale, he also hired a New Orleans-based firm, Rodrigue and Arcuri, to work on “matters involving the federal government and consent decrees.” 

Rodrigue and Arcuri is paid $225 an hour.

The WilmerHale contract is also nearly triple the maximum hourly fee promulgated by the attorney general, who approves all private legal contracts with government agencies. In February, AG Murrill set the maximum hourly rate for legal services at $350 an hour. 

A state law regulating the hiring of outside legal counsel by state agencies also appears to prohibit rates higher than $500 per hour.  “In no case shall the attorney general, or any state agency, board, or commission….incur fees in excess of five hundred dollars per hour for legal services,” the Louisiana statute reads.

“I don’t see any authority for it in the Louisiana law,” said Dane Ciolino, a legal-ethics expert and professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, when he was asked about the November contract in January. The firm’s $750 rate was not unreasonable, given WilmerHale’s national reputation, Ciolino noted. But, he said, it didn’t seem to be allowed within Louisiana law. “I’m not aware of any exception that would let them charge those kinds of rates in excess of $500 an hour,” he said.

Manale pointed to a provision in the law that exempts contracts from those monetary limits if they are related to “tort litigation or other matters involving the self-insurance fund.” 

“Several serious tort lawsuits and civil-rights claims have been brought against the state, LSP, and employees of LSP, which will be impacted by the patterns and practices investigation,” Manale wrote.

But Ciolino said back in November that he did not think that exemption would apply to the contract with WilmerHale related to the DOJ probe.  Plus, the AG’s office has attorneys that regularly defend against civil rights cases without hiring outside counsel, Odoms noted. There are also other local firms that perform that work for far less money. 

Asked about the state’s $500 hourly cap in January, Murrill said that the November contract was negotiated prior to her taking office. She was “reviewing it and the authority regarding rates,” she said.

In March, when The Lens followed up on the issue, a AG spokesperson said that the contract was no longer with the office, and referred questions to the state police. 

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...