Louisiana Public Service Commission approves contracts held up over work with environmentalists

Personal relationship between public service commissioner and contractor sparks debate

By: - December 14, 2021 5:45 pm
Louisiana approves contracts held up over consultants’ work with environmentalists

Power lines in Houma are swayed following Hurricane Ida. (Photo by JC Canicosa/Louisiana Illuminator)

The Louisiana Public Service Commission on Tuesday approved two government consulting contracts that were delayed last month because a commissioner was upset the low bidder didn’t disclose work the consultant had done for an environmental law firm. 

The commission hired London Economics International to help understand long-term assessments being performed by Entergy Louisiana LLC and Cleco Power, despite previous objections raised by Commissioner Eric Skrmetta, R-Metairie. Utility companies use these assessments to plan for future energy needs and presumably to inform regulatory requests to the Public Service Commission. 

Skrmetta halted the consulting contracts approval last month when he accused London Economics of hiding a potential conflict of interest by not disclosing the consultant’s previous work for the Earthjustice law firm. He did not specify why he thought consulting with the law firm would conflict with the interests of the commission, nor did he respond to requests for further comment.

“I oppose contracting with London Economics until such time as a clear review can be made regarding their failure to disclose their prior contractual relationships with Earthjustice and other firms,” Skrmetta said, reading from a prepared statement in November.

London Economics worked with Earthjustice when the law firm represented two Native American tribes in North Dakota in litigation against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the Dakota Access oil pipeline. One of the consulting firm’s economists provided an analysis of the potential impacts that would result if the pipeline were temporarily closed. 

Earthjustice is also active in Louisiana pipeline disputes. It represented the Crawfish Producers Association opposing construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, but London Economics did not assist the law firm on that case. The Louisiana Public Service Commission regulates intrastate pipelines after they are constructed and placed into service.

Commission Chairman Craig Greene, R-Baton Rouge, and Commissioner Mike Francis, R-Crowley, had their staff look into Skrmetta’s allegation and concluded the consultant’s work for Earthjustice was not relevant.

“Their work was very narrow in scope,” said David Zito, Greene’s executive assistant. “They were just asked to provide an economic analysis of what would happen if the pipeline shut down. They didn’t opine or give testimony on whether or not it should be shut down.” 

But the questioning raised issues about one of the commission’s other contractors, who has had a personal relationship with Skrmetta.  

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Scott McQuaig, a former lawyer who is listed as a corporate officer alongside Skrmetta for several nonprofit organizations, was the only bidder on a contract for $44,650 to determine whether the commission has oversight over electric vehicle charging stations.

Corporate filings with the Louisiana Secretary of State show Skrmetta and McQuaig operated the Jefferson Alliance for Good Government, an advocacy organization involved in local politics, from 1995 to 2010; as well as Safari Club International Skull and Bones Chapter, a big game hunting club, from 2004 to 2015. The pair also operate the Louisiana Soap Box Derby, which organizes child derby car racing, and corporate filings show it remains active today.

Skrmetta served as McQuaig’s attorney in several civil matters prior to Skrmetta’s 2008 election to the commission. In 2016, McQuaig also worked as Skrmetta’s notary in the establishment of a trust fund for Skrmetta’s children, according to records with the Jefferson Parish Clerk of Court’s office.   

On Tuesday, Skrmetta said he has no financial interests with McQuaig.

“I am involved in a lot of social clubs, and I have never been paid by anybody,” he said. 

Commissioner Lambert Boissiere said Skrmetta went on a “tirade” last month over the alleged conflict of interest for London Economics and Boissiere simply wants the same level of scrutiny to apply to other bids. He and Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, D-Shreveport, had hoped to ask McQuaig several questions on Tuesday regarding his relationship with Skrmetta, but McQuaig left the commission’s meeting early.

McQuaig has won various commission contracts, including two last year worth nearly $180,000 total for consulting on 5G utility pole attachments and cybersecurity, according to commission records. He also won two commission contracts in 2013 worth more than $350,000 total to serve as outside counsel to help the commission establish best practices for disaster planning and to establish rules for prison phone systems, according to commission records. 

McQuaig could not be reached for comment. The phone number he listed on his contract bid is not in service.  

Skrmetta voted to approve the previous four contracts given to McQuaig and the fifth contract awarded Tuesday, according to the commission’s records. The commission approved it on Tuesday in a 3-2 decision with Campbell and Boissiere opposed. 

When asked by Campbell last month, commission staff members said they don’t do anything to investigate whether bidding contractors or their family members have any business dealings with any of the commissioners. Campbell said he’d like to propose adding such a rule for future contract proposals. 

In response, the commission approved a directive to have staff members study the screening process of bidders and consider a new rule that would prohibit contractors that may have business relationships with any of the commissioners.

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Wes Muller
Wes Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Much of his journalism has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and coverage of municipal and state government. He has received recognitions including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus and a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his two sons and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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