Louisiana legislative leaders mum on controversial redistricting law firm

Republican leaders in the Louisiana Legislature ended the political redistricting session last week refusing to disclose more information about a government contract with a law firm hired to advise lawmakers drawing new controversial political maps.

The Legislature turned over its contract with BakerHostetler law firm in response to a public records request, but it hasn’t disclosed information about a subcontractor hired through the law firm to work on redistricting. Journalists have confirmed at least one polling expert was hired to work with lawmakers on redistricting. 

Legislative leaders have also refused to answer questions about other law firms considered for the contract and how much Baker Hostetler’s work has cost the state.

“I don’t want to discuss that anymore,” Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, responded when asked about the law firm Friday.

Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-French Settlement, said the firm will represent Louisiana in court if the state is sued over the maps lawmakers approved last week. Lawsuits are likely because civil rights organizations have already threatened to go to court over the redistricting plans. 

Only four legislators – Cortez, Schexnayder, Sen. Sharon Hewitt and Rep. John Stefanski – had access to the firm’s attorneys. Other lawmakers weren’t aware Baker Hostetler had been retained until media reports surfaced about its contract. 

Cortez and other legislative leaders have not been willing to answer the following questions about the contract for more than a week, though taxpayer dollars are expected to cover the costs.

What other experts were hired?

Cortez and Hewitt said BakerHostetler subcontracted with a person or people to conduct a racially polarized voting analysis of Louisiana, but they refused to say who was hired to do this work.

Hewitt, R-Slidell, oversaw the redistricting process in the Senate. Under public questioning from Democrats, she said the person the law firm hired for voting analysis was “somebody from Stanford University,” but she has declined to answer other questions about the arrangement. 

Cortez also wouldn’t provide the name of the subcontractor. Stefanski, R-Crowley, who oversaw redistricting in the House, said he never spoke to anyone at BakerHostetler about the voting analysis and didn’t know the name of the person doing the study. 

One of BakerHostetler’s attorneys, Kate McKnight, advised legislators from around the country last summer to conduct racially polarized voting analyses of their states’ voting patterns. The study can help lawmakers determine how many majority-minority political districts are needed to meet legal requirements. It’s also useful when fending off a lawsuit, she said publicly

“[I]t’s a very important piece of analysis,” McKnight said at an event the National Conference on State Legislatures held last year. “You need to have an understanding of minority voting patterns before you can figure out what district needs to be drawn.”

Yet Hewitt said, in Louisiana’s case, a polarized voting analysis couldn’t be completed because of “scatter” in the state’s voting data. She also said she couldn’t provide documentation about the attempted analysis because “I don’t have anything in writing.”

There have also been questions about whether Cortez and Schexnayder hired another political consultant to work on the political maps. 

In December, Louisiana political consultant John Couvillon told the Illuminator that Cortez and Schexnayder had hired him to help with redistricting. Couvillion is a polling expert who has worked on several legislative campaigns.

Earlier this month, Schexnayder told reporters the Legislature did not hire Couvillon for redistricting. Cortez declined to answer questions about whether Couvillion was doing work for the leadership team. 

Couvillion also stopped answering questions a couple of weeks ago about any redistricting work he might be doing.

“I cannot and do not comment on work I do or don’t do,” he said in a phone interview when asked whether he was working on the state’s redistricting plans. 

What other law firms were considered? 

Democrats have been concerned about the BakerHostetler contract. One of the firm’s attorneys, Mark Braden, has a history of defending Republicans accused of gerrymandering political districts to dilute minority voting power. Braden is also the former general counsel for the Republican National Committee. 

Schexnayder and Stefanski said the legislative leadership interviewed a few law firms before selecting BakerHostetler, but they have not been willing to identify them. In an interview, Stefanski said he couldn’t remember the names of the other law firms considered.

A person close to Legislative leadership, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Charles Spies was also up for the redistricting contract. Spies has a similar background to Braden’s. He worked for the Republican National Committee and previously served as general counsel and chief financial officer for the Republican Governors Association. 

Spies also has Louisiana connections. He works on the Conservative Louisiana PAC that supports U.S. Sen. John Kennedy and helped former U.S. Sen. David Vitter overturn a Louisiana law that limited PAC campaign contributions to $100,000

Spies works for Dickinson Wright law firm and could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

How much will the law firm cost taxpayers?

The BakerHostetler contract was released in response to a public records request earlier this month, but it doesn’t shed much light on how much the law firm’s work might eventually cost.

The firm’s contract doesn’t include a hard cap on expenses. BakerHostetler estimated it would bill Louisiana $10,000 per month for “redistricting advice,” but the contract allows the law firm to “true up” at the end of 90 days, meaning it can retroactively charge the state above and beyond that amount. The $10,000 monthly fee also doesn’t cover ancillary expenses, such as the use of legal databases and expert witnesses.

In its contract, the law firm said it expected to charge Louisiana monthly for its work, but the Legislature has not received an invoice or bill from the firm yet, according to public records responses from the House and Senate staff.

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jarvis DeBerry for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press. Julie covered state government and politics for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune for six years. She’s also covered government and politics in Missouri, Virginia and Washington D.C. Julie is a proud D.C. native and Washington Capitals hockey fan. She and her partner, Jed, live in Baton Rouge. She has two stepchildren, Quinn and Steven.

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