October 13, 2020 by: Tom Aswell (Louisiana Voice)
Today’s lesson, class, is on governmental ethics, Louisiana style.
With Louisiana’s ethics laws, of course, you’ll find more twists and turns than from a belly dancer in a carnival sideshow tent.
In fact, Louisiana’s ethics laws are just about as tawdry as an over-the-hill belly dancer, but without the tasteful ambiance.
So, having said that, we’ll get right to the first question of today’s lesson:
What do you do with an attorney who has suspended indefinitely from practicing law by the Louisiana Supreme Court?
Well, if we’re talking about the Louisiana Public Service Commission and the former lawyer is a business partner of PSC member Eric Skrmetta, you hire him to a consulting contract – potential conflicts of interest be damned.
And if you’re Skrmetta, you even make the original motion to hire your partner or, absent that opportunity, you offer the second to another
co-conspirator’s member’s motion.
Before the suspension, it was borderline okay, I suppose, to hire Scott McQuaig as a PSC legal counsel but that became something of a problem after his license to practice law was pulled.
Solution: hire him as (ahem, harumph) a consultant to advise the PSC on matters.
Here’s the back story on the entire sordid mess.
The first contract awarded to McQuaig in May 2013 was for $264,950 to serve as outside counsel for the PSC’s efforts to come up with a “Best Practices” protocol for disaster planning for utilities. About that same time, he was awarded a separate contract for $96,000 to serve as outside counsel for establishing “rules and regulations specific to the regulation of prison telephone communications systems.
In each case, Skrmetta seconded motions to hire the man with whom he served on three separate corporate boards.
Two years earlier, Skrmetta, who had taken – and continues to accept – campaign contributions from companies who provide prison phone services, BITTERLY OPPOSED efforts by advocates to get the PSC to oppose telephone rate increases for prisoners’ families.
But then, just over a year ago, on May 13, 2019, the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld an action by the Louisiana Supreme Court to suspend McQuaig from the practice of law indefinitely after he was accused of legal malpractice, ethical violations, failure to pay for services rendered, and theft.
He was suited on at least five separate occasions in unrelated cases involving disputes with former clients. In one case, two men who had hired McQuaig said his failure to act resulted in their lawsuit being dismissed but he failed to inform them of the dismissal.
So, now the PSC was faced with a dilemma. The solution was to award a contract for $128,500 to McQuaig who, instead of outside legal counsel, was now a “consultant” hired to “advise the commission about telecommunication attachments to electric utility poles. Skrmetta, ever ready to help a friend and business associate, again offered the second to the motion to hire McQuaig.
And now, the PSC is scheduled to meet on Wednesday (Oct. 14) at which time it is scheduled to consider yet another contract for McQuaig, this one for $49,550 to support the PSC’s “monitoring the area of cybersecurity.
There was another matter reportedly involving McQuaig that the PSC was scheduled to take up but that item appears to have been removed from tomorrow’s agenda: a proposed contract with an outfit called Resolved Energy. McQuaig was said to have been involved with that company in some manner, but the details of their relationship, if it indeed exists, were not immediately available.
Commissioner Craig Greene, a protégé of one Timmy Teepell (remember him?) was quick to come to the defense of Skrmetta’s potential conflict of interest in pursuing the interest of his old business partner.
“I do not know the extent of Mr. McQuaig’s relationship with Commissioner Skrmetta,” Greene said, apparently with a straight face, “but it is never surprising for commissioners to know all the consultants who place bids to the commission.”
Oh. Well then. I certainly feel better knowing that.
Except…except Skrmetta and McQuaig are using the same 100 Lilac Street address in Metairie and have been for at least 11 years. McQuaig listed his address as 100 Lilac Street as early as 2004, according to corporate records on file with the Secretary of State’s Office, and Skrmetta just happens to have listed 100 Lilac Street, Metairie, as the address of his PSC District 1 office as recently as 2009 and in filings with the PSC as recently as 2012.