THE INVESTIGATORS: Analyst projects redistricting legal fight could cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars
BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - The first real battle over redistricting is over now that the governor has shot down part of the redrawn district maps lawmakers came up with, but the fight is far from over.
Things will likely end up before a judge and advocates say it will likely charge hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Unless there’s some sort of miraculous bargain struck, I think the congressional maps will end up being dealt with in court and certainly the state legislative maps will end up being dealt with in court,” said Peter Robins-Brown, executive director with Louisiana Progress.
Records the 9News Investigators obtained show leaders within the House and Senate hired outside law firm BakerHostetler back in December 2021 to help with the redrawn maps.
“We really don’t know how much this is going to cost and the numbers that have been floated around so far are probably pretty detached from what the final tally will be,” Robins-Brown added.
A letter signed by both Senate President Patrick Page Cortez and Speaker of the House Clay Schexnayder lay out the agreement. The firm costs $10,000 a month for now but if things go to court, the price will jack up to $60,000 a month. On top of that, the firm can also go back during the process and charge extra fees.
Things got heated on the Senate floor last month when Senator Karen Carter Peterson grilled Senator Sharon Hewitt over what she knew about the agreement and when.
Senator Peterson: “There was a lawyer hired a firm hired to help with the redistricting process. You’re not aware or never spoken to anyone at a law firm to help with the redistricting process?”
Senator Hewitt: “I have talked to some lawyers about the redistricting process but I’m not the one involved with hiring them.”
Senator Peterson: “You think that’s okay for her to only talk to you and not any other member that clearly has an interest. Has she talked to Senator Fields? He’s been really involved in this.”
Senator Hewitt: “I have no idea.”
The back and forth quickly morphed into a standoff over two main questions—- why was the law firm hired and why were other lawmakers kept in the dark about it.
Senator Peterson: “I’ve never heard of her. I’ve never seen her at the table. Does she have emails that you’ve exchanged with her?”
Senator Hewitt: “Perhaps.”
Senator Peterson: “Perhaps?”
Senator Hewitt: “Yes, of course.”
WAFB was able to get a copy of one of the emails, showing not only did the Speaker of the House and the Senate President sign off on it but Senator Sharon Hewitt and Representative John Stefanski knew about it. All four of them were listed for a private meeting with the firm as far back as October 2021. WAFB political analyst Jim Engster tells me it’s not unusual for law firms to get involved in the redistricting process but he says it should have been handled differently.
“I think it should have been done more openly, there is no doubt, and I think lawmakers are like any other statewide officials or other people on university campuses,” said Engster. “Quite often, they don’t reveal their hand until they have to.”
“This process is going to cost the state several hundred thousand dollars and it probably shouldn’t have. It should have been done in the open and it hasn’t been done, so there will be a lot gnashing of teeth about the process and about the cost and once again the taxpayers are the one picking up the tab,” said Engster.
Advocates and some lawmakers have argued that the maps the body came up with don’t adequately reflect the growth of Black populations in certain areas and limits the strength of their vote. If a judge has to weigh in on this, bottom line— it will end up costing taxpayers more money. The 9News Investigators have tried to nail down exactly how much it’s cost taxpayers already but invoices from the law firm have not been made available.
“Who knows what the cost ends up ballooning to and without the kind of transparency that we expect, we really have no way of tracking that, at least until the bill comes due,” said Robins-Brown.
WAFB did reach out to each of the lawmakers in this report. Senator Hewitt did respond but deferred to the Senate President.
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