By Andrea Gallo | The Advocate | May 31, 2021
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry’s newly disclosed role as a paid board member for his top political ally’s oil services company is raising questions about whether Landry is following a state law that instructs the attorney general to devote “his full time” to the Attorney General’s office and bars him from doing any outside legal work.
Landry reported the board membership for the first time on his 2020 financial disclosure, filed this month with the Louisiana Ethics Board. The attorney general reported making between $50,000 and $100,000 last year as an “independent board member” for Harvey Gulf LLC, which is run by board chairman and CEO, Shane Guidry.
The arrangement is unusual in many respects: Guidry is a major donor to Landry, who has also hired Guidry to serve as a “special agent/investigator” for the Attorney General’s office. No other current statewide elected official reported serving on the board of a private firm.
Landry’s biography on the Harvey Gulf website says he helps the company “comply with all applicable laws and regulations,” while Guidry explained in a recent interview that Landry advises Harvey Gulf to ensure the company doesn’t run afoul of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
“I had a vacancy to sit on that seat and I couldn’t think of a better person than my good friend Jeff Landry who knows those laws quite well,” Guidry said.
But in Louisiana, the attorney general is bound by a state statute that says he cannot practice law outside of his office, and that he must devote his full time to being attorney general.
“The attorney general shall not engage in the private practice of law during his term of office, but shall devote his full time to the duties of the office of the attorney general,” the state statute reads, in its entirety.
The attorney general is also subject to state ethics laws that say that public servants have to be judicious about receiving payments and gifts other than their state salaries. Landry’s paid position on the Harvey Gulf board may violate those rules, according to several experts.
Guidry said Landry spends a few hours a month on his work for the Harvey Gulf board, one of several outside income sources the attorney general claims. Landry also claims full ownership of two staffing firms. He has not answered detailed questions about how much of his time is occupied by running those firms.
It’s difficult to ascertain from a review of public records how much time Landry spends on official duties versus outside ventures. His public calendars are often empty, with the exception of media appearances, often on right-wing channels, including One America News Network and Newsmax.
For example, his calendars over a three-month period late last year showed 27 media appearances, compared to 23 meetings or conference calls with his staff members. The majority were weekly conference calls with his communications team. A request for Landry’s swipe card records of coming and going from his office only turned up five records, though his spokesman said his staff normally waves him into the office.
Landry’s email log likewise yields little insight into his work as AG. For instance, when the newspaper requested all messages between Landry and five of his top aides for a week in July, the office produced only five emails, all general messages broadcast to or received by a wide audience. Officials said they were withholding another 22 messages because they were either “work product” or “confidential intra-agency correspondence.” A request for a second week of emails produced similar results. The office shot down a request for a year’s worth of messages as too burdensome.
Landry did not answer detailed questions sent to his spokesman for this story. Guidry did not return calls for this story.
Former Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, who lost a bruising reelection campaign to Landry in 2015, says Landry’s membership on the Harvey Gulf board appears improper. Caldwell said that attorney generals should not practice law beyond their office, particularly if they are peddling their title as “attorney general” to tout their credibility as a lawyer.
“I would never have done that; it’s a pretty clear conflict of interest,” Caldwell said.
When Landry took office in 2016, he followed through with a vow to clean up the “appearance of corruption” in his office by getting rid of contracts that Caldwell doled out to private attorneys, many of them campaign donors. Landry said then that even if the contracts did not violate the state Ethics Code, he wanted to go a step further because “we believe it’s improper and creates a bad perception.”
But if the appearance of impropriety is important to Landry, he should nix his Harvey Gulf board membership and give back any money he’s gotten from it, said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a nonprofit criminal justice watchdog.
“At the very least, you’re looking at potentially an ethics violation,” Goyeneche said. “At the very least, I think Landry, out of an abundance of caution — to prevent even the appearance of impropriety — should pay back any income or compensation he received from Harvey Gulf and apologize. He also ought to self-report it to the Ethics Administration. If he doesn’t have an opinion, he needs to get it now.”
Caldwell agreed that Landry should have sought an ethics opinion before taking a seat on the Harvey Gulf board, and that his board membership should be “very carefully monitored.”
Landry has not answered questions about whether he sought Ethics Board guidance on the board membership. But the board typically posts advisory opinions that people have sought on various topics, and none has been issued to Landry on the subject. Guidry told the newspaper that Landry had called an ethics lawyer in 2019 before taking the position, but he did not remember who it was.
While Landry continues to derive income from his work outside of the office, he also put an end to that practice for attorneys who work under him, in 2016. Caldwell had allowed it, as long as the work didn’t present a conflict.
Landry said then that his employees could perform outside legal work in the future only if they were finishing a case that they had already taken on. But that was purely a policy change, rather than the state statute that bars outside work by the AG himself.
“That statute says you can’t practice law and you have to devote your full-time duties to being attorney general,” Goyeneche said. “And according to Shane Guidry, he’s practicing law, giving him legal advice. And even if Shane is misinterpreting that, to serve on that board, he has to work a couple of hours a month. That means he’s not devoting his full-time efforts to being attorney general.”
Landry draws a salary of $110,000 as attorney general. That means his Harvey Gulf gig could pay nearly as much as his job as the state’s top law enforcement officer.
Landry also reported earnings topping $200,000 apiece from his staffing companies, UST Environmental Services and Evergreen Contractors. But while Landry’s disclosure made clear that he was working for the money he receives from the Attorney General’s Office and from Harvey Gulf, he described his other earnings as “dividends.”
The law can be vague on what constitutes “practicing law.” But a 2018 opinion from Landry’s office to the Lafourche Parish president advised him that state statute says practicing law includes “advising or counseling another as to secular law” if done for “consideration, reward, or pecuniary benefit,” directly or indirectly, in the present or future.
Elizabeth Carter, a professor at LSU’s Paul M. Hebert Law Center, who advises attorneys on ethics issues, said it’s pretty clear-cut. “Louisiana law prohibits the Attorney General from engaging in the private practice of law and requires him to devote his full time to serving the state as Attorney General,” she said.
Carter, who stressed that she was not speaking on behalf of LSU, added: “Mr. Landry’s financial disclosure and your previous reporting indicate that he is paid more than $50,000 a year to provide advice relating to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act,” she added. “If Mr. Guidry’s statements in your previous reporting accurately describe Mr. Landry’s role, it certainly appears that Mr. Landry’s position as a board member violates the spirit of Louisiana Revised Statute 49:256.”
Landry has sought to reassure the public that his work at Harvey Gulf is kosher. His biography on the company’s website says he “participates on the Harvey Gulf Board purely in a personal capacity and outside his work and efforts on behalf of the State of Louisiana. In keeping with the highest ethical and moral standards, Landry’s Board service is separate and apart from his official duties.”
Caldwell disputes that such independence is possible.
“That’s ridiculous for anybody to even sit on a board as an attorney general of that type — it is very, very problematic and is probably unethical for that to occur,” Caldwell said. “There’s too much skewed influence to sit on any kind of board like that in a representative capacity.”