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Aug 14, 2010 10:59 PM by Chris Welty

LSU Felt Political Pressure to Settle Lawsuit

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - The chancellor and president at
Louisiana State University felt pressured by the Senate president
and the risk of losing major financing for the school if they did
not settle a lawsuit in favor of a private contractor represented
by a state senatorm, according to school documents.
The Times-Picayune reported Saturday that Senate President Joel
Chaisson, D-Destrehan, said he was only trying to facilitate a fair
resolution to a legal dispute involving LSU and a corporate client
of his colleague, Sen. Rob Marionneaux, D-Livonia.
School documents indicate LSU's top officials were perplexed
that Senate leaders and a department in the executive branch were
pushing in May 2009 for a settlement that would have richly
rewarded Marionneaux, a lawyer whose compensation was slated to
increase substantially if the settlement reached a certain
threshold amount.
LSU rejected the proposals at the time and almost a year later
settled the lawsuit at a lesser amount. The circumstances and
players surrounding the litigation have become public since the
state Board of Ethics last week charged Marionneaux with violating
the ethics code.
According to the charges, his representation of a private client
potentially paying him to help sue a state agency was prohibited
unless he notified the board of his work, which he did not.
Marionneaux has not returned calls seeking comment. A panel of
ethics judges will hear the case.
The legal dispute started in 2006 between LSU and Bernhard
Mechanical Contractors Inc., which had built a co-generation power
plant on the Baton Rouge campus. The company expected compensation
based on a controversial cost-savings formula that has been at the
center of the litigation. LSU settled the case in March by taking
over ownership of the plant from the company and agreeing to pay
Bernhard Mechanical $9.6 million over four years.
The company in 2008 asked Marionneaux for assistance on a
contingency fee basis, according to state documents. As a lawyer,
he had experience with cases related to energy savings contracts.
As chairman of the Senate Revenue & Fiscal Affairs Committee, he
was a powerful voice in the Legislature, particularly on state
financial legislation.
At Marionneaux's request, Chaisson asked Lombardi and LSU System
Chancellor Michael Martin to a meeting on May 27, 2009, in the
Senate president's conference room at the state Capitol to try to
reach a settlement with Bernhard Mechanical's owner and lawyers,
including Marionneaux. Scott Angelle, the governor's top
legislative liaison and the secretary of the Department of Natural
Resources, also attended. Chaisson did not.
At the meeting, Marionneaux said the company would settle for
$7.1 million from LSU and, in a separate agreement, $5.5 million
from the state, possibly through the natural resources agency,
according to LSU and ethics board documents. At the time, the
Senate was about to act on the state's budget bills near the end of
the spring legislative session. Marionneaux indicated that the
state's portion would be secured through legislative appropriation.
Chaisson, a lawyer, said Friday he was not aware of the
contingency fee terms.
"I don't know any of the details other than the fact that there
was a dispute that involved one of Rob's clients and LSU,"
Chaisson said. "It was simply a suggestion by me that they sit
down and try to resolve their differences."
LSU officials saw the situation differently.
Martin told Lombardi that "some major energy funding for LSU"
was at risk because the long-fought lawsuit was creating "some ill
will with many in the industry." Also, Martin had been told that
the Department of Natural Resources wanted to create some type of
$10 million "center" at the university that might not be realized
if the suit was not settled.
Martin and Lombardi would not comment on the issue because they
might be called as witnesses at the ethics hearings for
Marionneaux.

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