House Speaker refuses request to change remap firm

Associated Press State Wire: Louisiana (LA) - Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Author: MELINDA DESLATTE - Associated Press

House Speaker Jim Tucker refused Wednesday to hire a different law firm to represent the House in its remapping effort, despite complaints the current firm has a conflict of interest because it advised GOP lawmakers during the redesign debate. 

Tucker, R-Terrytown, said he chose Washington, D.C.-based Holtzman Vogel PLLC because of its expertise in the complex litigation tied to redrawing political boundary lines. He dismissed concerns raised by Democrats, saying he won't seek a new set of lawyers to shepherd the redesign of the 105 House districts through federal review. 

''We're not going to even contemplate that. The Holtzman Vogel firm has already been hired. They have filed our submission to the Department of Justice,'' Tucker told the House and Governmental Affairs Committee that oversees redistricting efforts. 

''At the end of the day it's my decision to decide which firms to talk to, and this is the firm I felt was best, and we're moving on,'' he said. 

Rep. John Bel Edwards, chairman of the House Democratic caucus, said Holtzman Vogel has a conflict because one of its lawyers gave advice to the Republican caucus during debate over how to redraw the House districts. 

Edwards said the company can't properly represent the entire House after advising only one group of House members on a divisive issue about how to draw minority districts. 

''It is inherently a conflict. The appearance of this is awful,'' said Edwards, D-Amite. ''There were many other ways to do this that would not have presented this type of problem, many other firms.'' 

The law firm hired by Tucker has extensive ties to the national Republican Party. 

The managing partner of Holtzman Vogel is chief counsel to the Republican National Committee, and another member of the firm was deputy general counsel to the Bush-Cheney campaign during the 2004 election cycle. 

''None of us (Democrats) had access to these lawyers or what advice was being provided, and now they're representing all of us,'' said Rep. Rick Gallot, D-Ruston, chairman of the House committee, complaining he wasn't consulted about the hiring. 

In a three-week special session that ended earlier this month, lawmakers redrew the district maps for all 144 legislative seats and the Public Service Commission. They also devised a plan to reduce congressional seats from seven to six. 

The maps address population shifts over the last decade as outlined in the latest census data. 

Louisiana's maps require approval from the U.S. Justice Department or a Washington, D.C., federal judge under the Voting Rights Act, to ensure they don't discriminate against minorities in a state with a history of inequitable treatment of blacks. 

The attorney general's office will submit the congressional and PSC plans to federal officials, and the state Senate's in-house legal staff is submitting the Senate remap. 

But Senate President Joel Chaisson and his legal advisers were in agreement on the plan, while Tucker was at odds with his chief redistricting adviser in the House. 

House Clerk Alfred ''Butch'' Speer said he believed failure to create a 30th minority district in the 105-member House could be considered discriminatory and could jeopardize approval by federal officials. Tucker supported 29 minority districts instead, and a lawyer with Holtzman Vogel advised Louisiana lawmakers that the 29 seats would meet requirements. The approved House plan contains 29. 

Speer said he asked not to be involved in the submission to the Justice Department of the House map after several lawmakers reacted negatively to his testimony. But some members of the House committee questioned why Tucker didn't ask the attorney general's office to do the House work. 

Tucker said he doesn't know how much the contract with Holtzman Vogel will cost the House. Attorneys are being paid $360 per hour for their work, he said. 

Lawmakers returned Wednesday to the remapping task, this time for the eight elected districts for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, a map they didn't complete in their special session. 

The House and Governmental Affairs Committee advanced two measures to redraw the districts. The bills go next to the full House for debate. Lawmakers hope to get the BESE remap work done quickly because elections for the seats are scheduled this fall. 


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