Business

Groundwater commission members face ethics violations

Posted November 17, 2020 2:34 p.m. EST

— The Louisiana Board of Ethics has charged three members of a groundwater commission in the state with a conflict-of-interest violation for working at companies regulated by the same commission.

The Capital Area Ground Water Conservation in Baton Rouge, which is tasked with conserving and administering groundwater in six Louisiana parishes, has a long history of including industry representatives. But the ethics charges filed this month against Commissioners Nelson Morvant, Todd Talbot and Ronnie Albritton are challenging that practice.

The charges reported Tuesday by The Advocate said the commissioners have violated an ethics law that bars public servants from getting something of value from a company they oversee.

Gov. John Bel Edwards appointed the three men to the 18-member commission. He also appointed two other members who were charged with the same violation over the summer.

Morvant, who was the chairman of the commission for the past two years, works for the energy company Entergy. Talbot works for ExxonMobil and Albritton is employed by Georgia-Pacific, a manufacturer of tissues and other products, ethics charging documents said.

The newspaper reports each of those companies use an aquifer that is the primary water source for residents in the Baton Rouge region, and for industries along the Mississippi river.

A report issued by state officials in February said a vast majority of those who have served on the commission as chairman between 1974 and 2004 have been an employees of a regulated company.

Public water supply representatives have also sat on the commission, but the framework has faced scrutiny from environmental groups and state regulators amid concerns about salt water intrusion into Baton Rouge’s groundwater.

“If commission members are paid employees of companies regulated by the commission, that seems like an obvious conflict,” said Marylee Orr, executive director of Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

“We are hopeful these ethics charges move the commission towards actions that are best for area residents as a whole, not any individual user," she told the newspaper.

The charges can be resolved through a settlement or go before an administrative law judge, state ethics officials said. The commissioners could face fines or be kicked off the commission if found guilty.

Morvant, Talbot and Albritton said in a joint statement issued through their employers that the legislation that created the commission in the 1970s “authorizes employees of industry groundwater users to hold seats" on the commission.

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