Bayou Bedfellows

WHATEVER THE FINANCIAL and engineering challenges, vast numbers of people who, despite the diaspora, still call southern Louisiana home want to revive and restore their communities and their way of life.

With aid and assistance from near and far, they will succeed within the unique tradition of Pelican State politics, which blowing winds and raging water will not likely change. Take this recent case from the state appeals court.

In 1968, River Birch Inc. (RB) bought a tract of land bisected by a railroad track. The company developed the northern half as a residential subdivision, but, with no access across the track to the southern portion, scrapped plans to build houses there. RB's development options were significantly limited after two landfills — one publicly managed, the other privately owned — began operating adjacent to its property.

Fast forward two decades. The state environmental agency was implementing Subtitle D by closing open dumps and by requiring, among other features, liners and leachate collection systems for new and expanded facilities. As RB's president, Albert J. Ward Jr., figured it, neither landfill would be able to make the transition.

After investing nearly a million dollars in engineering studies and other exploratory work, he decided that creating a landfill on his property would be feasible and began to actively promote the idea. Neighborhood groups opposed the landfill, and sought help from their local legislator, John Alario, who just happened to be the speaker of the state House of Representatives.

Shortly thereafter, Ward learned that Alario had introduced a bill (HB 1819) to prevent the state from issuing an operating permit for the RB landfill. Frustrated and furious, Ward needed help. Someone put him in touch with Augie Grimaldi, who reportedly was a friend of Alario.

Grimaldi, for his part, suggested that Ward could resolve his problem by calling Dan Robin, who worked for Alario. Ward later met with Robin in Alario's office, and on June 1, 1995, signed a contract in which Robin agreed to lobby on behalf of RB for the defeat of HB 1819 and a companion state senate bill. Robin would receive $50,000 for his work and — if the bills were defeated or amended to exclude RB's property — a 4 percent interest in the landfill if it opened for business.

Just days after the contract was signed, Robin got involved, and the bills were soon defeated. The landfill began operating in 1999 and now generates millions of dollars in revenue. RB paid the $50,000 to Robin, but refused to transfer any interest in the landfill to him.

Robin sued RB, seeking to uphold the contract and force RB to transfer the 4 percent landfill interest. RB claimed the contract was unenforceable because (a) Robin violated state law by not reporting his lobbying relationship with RB, (b) the agreement was induced by fraud and economic duress, and (c) the negotiated lobbying fee, including the landfill interest, was so excessive as to be contrary to sound public policy.

The trial was somewhat unusual. The parties did not dispute what was said during any of their meetings. With a nod from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ward had taped all the conversations between himself and Robin, and transcripts of these conversations were introduced into evidence.

[Next month: Who said what? Who won?]

The legal editor welcomes comments from readers. Contact Barry Shanoff via e-mail: [email protected].

The columnist is a Rockville, Md., attorney and serves as general counsel of the Solid Waste Association of North America.