Recently, in a meeting of the Louisiana Senate Fiscal Revenue and Affairs Committee, the mother of a special needs child testified that she had been subjected to relentless attacks on social media by anti-tax proponents. She also lamented the work being done by another legislative committee, the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. That committee is responsible for determining how to solve the state’s budget shortfall, which threatens, among other things, programs and services for disabled children. The mother testified today, as she has throughout the session, to advocate on behalf of her child and the children of countless other families.
But the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Neil Abramson, a Democrat, has been conspicuously absent, according to the mother; he’s a serial no-show. Abramson is an Ivy League educated attorney who represents one of the most liberal districts in the entire state, an area that includes both Tulane and Loyola Universities and which overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012 (in a state that rejected him by double digits twice).
The mother told Abramson’s Senate colleagues that she’d been in more Ways and Means commitee meetings than its own chairman. “He’s (Abramson’s) never here when it matters,” she said, according to reporter Greg Hilburn. “Our nerves are shot.”
Abramson has an astonishing record of no-shows. In 2013, he skipped 40% of votes on “key issues.” In fact, that year, he was the only legislator who didn’t vote on the budget. He also skipped votes on the state’s notorious creationism in the classroom law, the defunding of Planned Parenthood, and legislation blocking gay couples from entering into surrogacy contracts (which, shamefully, he supported in committee).
This year, Abramson has missed a staggering 65% of votes.
On Saturday, The Advocate published a detailed profile of Abramson and his strained relationships with colleagues on both sides of the aisle. “Neil Abramson is the person I trust least in the Legislature,” state Sen. J.P. Morrell, a fellow Democrat from New Orleans, told reporter Tyler Bridges. Other colleagues have even stronger words when speaking about Abramson privately.
“He thinks he is the smartest person in the room, but everyone has pretty well figured out that’s he’s actually a con man. Always playing games. You can never believe anything he says. Some legislators have taken longer than others to figure it out,” one of his colleagues tells me, on the condition of anonymity.
“Abramson’s actions angered Democrats and Republicans alike in both the House and the Senate, and left his colleagues openly bad-mouthing him,” Bridges writes. “The level of hostility toward Abramson was remarkable, given the enormous power he wields at the Capitol as the chairman of the House committee that plays the dominant role in rewriting tax law and approving construction projects.”
There are many reasons that Democratic colleagues like Morrell are particularly and publicly distrustful of Abramson. Most notably, Abramson colluded with Republicans in order to undermine Walt Leger’s campaign for House Speaker. Leger, another fellow Democrat from New Orleans, was the preferred choice of then newly-elected governor, John Bel Edwards. Per tradition, the legislature has always deferred to the governor’s selection, even when the candidate belongs to the minority party. But Abramson decided to challenge his colleague, convincing a Republican to nominate him for the speakership.
Ultimately, Abramson mustered only two votes, his own and Truck Gisclair’s, but the damage had been done. His decision to repudiate Gov. Edwards, Rep. Leger, and all of his fellow Democrats gave tacit permission to Republicans to do the same. As a result, Leger narrowly lost.
When his constituents and members of the press criticized Abramson’s disloyalty and Machiavellian machinations, at first, he offered a convoluted excuse through his paid campaign consultant. Then, bizarrely and reminiscent of Donald Trump, Abramson began blocking reporters from following his Twitter account, including a correspondent from The Advocate, a student journalist for LSU’s The Daily Reveille, and me. He also blocked several people who simply retweeted critical comments about him. It was erratic and unprecedented.
As a result of all of this, the Orleans Parish Democratic Party Executive Committee called an emergency meeting and agreed to officially repudiate Abramson. A recall campaign was announced, and while the effort has lulled during the legislative session, organizers tell me that they have already secured several thousand dollars in pledged donations and that they intend on launching the campaign in the upcoming weeks.
Conservative pundits, unsurprisingly, rushed to Abramson’s defense, criticizing Democratic Party officials and activists for forming a circular firing squad around one of their own. But Democrats have long recognized that Neil Abramson has always been more of a corportatist conservative than a pragmatic progressive, and until recently, they had been willing to bite their tongues.
Neil Abramson once told CNN that he was first inspired to run for political office in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “I could no longer bear to see the slow recovery and people struggling to get the help they deserve,” he said.
As an attorney, however, Abramson represented domestic and foreign insurance companies “in defense of Hurricane Katrina claims” made by homeowners, according to his biography on his law firm’s website. A year after the storm, he represented insurance companies in a class-action lawsuit filed by homeowners and insurance policyholders who were denied coverage following Hurricane Katrina. And two years later, in 2008, he once again represented insurance companies in an another class action lawsuit brought by the State of Louisiana. The state claimed to represent all individuals who have or will receive funds through the Road Home program and alleged that insurance companies had dealt in bad faith, breached their contracts, and failed in their fiduciary duties.
At the same time he was representing insurance companies against claims made by others, Abramson was suing his own insurance company, State Farm, for more than $33,000 in damages resulting from Hurricane Katrina, seeking nearly $3,000 for men’s clothing and cologne. Quoting from his deposition:
Q. You mentioned- you submitted a receipt from Dillard’s for cologne.
A. For cologne?
Q. For cologne. Is that an item you believe should be covered under your policy?
A. It’s an additional expense that I would not have had except for the hurricane.
Q. It was necessary for you to wear cologne after the hurricane?
A. Again, were (sic) back to your definition of necessary. It was an additional expense that I would not have had except for the hurricane. (Deposition of Neil Abramson, Neil C. Abramson vs. State Farm Fire and Casualty Company, First City Court for the Parish of Orleans, Case Number 06-59216)
Ultimately, Abramson was awarded over $64,000, including $32,000 in attorney’s fees. And no doubt, justice was served. Insurance companies were doing their best to shortchange claimants. (Just ask their lawyers). But his suit against State Farm isn’t the only time Abramson has turned to the courts to either protect or line his personal pocketbook.
In 2004, he sued Metairie Cleaners for, among other things, “emotional distress” after three sets of drapes were ruined; the case was eventually settled. A year before, he sued a home renovation contractor. In 2012, he sued his own neighbors when they set out to build a covered deck and an in-ground pool that he contended was improperly permitted. The suit was dismissed with prejudice. Abramson appealed and lost. He then lost again at a hearing of the Board of Zoning Adjustments.
Abramson has also been on the receiving end of multiple lawsuits, almost exclusively involving home renovation projects. In 2002, he was sued by Duffy Lumber for more than $15,000 in unpaid construction costs. Eleven years later, Abramson won the case after a judge determined the claim had been abandoned by Duffy.
In 2004, Southland Cabinet Distributors sued him for nearly $9,000 in unpaid costs; the case was settled out of court. A year before, Abramson was sued by Lacey Construction for more than $90,000 in unpaid services. The case stalled in the courts for nearly a decade, and then, in 2013, an arbitrator ruled against Abramson and awarded Lacey Construction over $171,000, determining that he had improperly withheld payment. Abramson’s subsequent appeal to the Fourth Circuit was dismissed.
All told, Neil Abramson is named in at least fifteen different civil lawsuits.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that a lawyer would be on both the receiving and the giving end of litigation, and in fairness to him, it certainly appears as if his home renovation project followed Murphy’s Law.
But what is more relevant and important are the ways in which his professional work as a lawyer has informed his political work as a state representative.
Since 1992, Abramson has represented nearly two dozen different oil and chemical companies in federal court. He’s served as counsel for Koch Industries or one of its subsidiaries in at least eleven separate cases. Not surprisingly, Koch has been willing to donate to Abramson’s political campaigns, making him one of a very small handful of Democratic elected officials in the entire country whose campaigns have been bankrolled by a company owned by the Republican Party’s most well-known billionaire brothers.
His close ties to Big Oil have earned him praise by industry insiders and lobbyists, so the perception that he may have conflicts of interest is imminently reasonable.
In 2014, his law firm represented parties named in an historic lawsuit against 97 different oil and gas companies, seeking compensation for damages inflicted on the Louisiana coast. Republicans in the legislature, under marching orders from former Gov. Bobby Jindal, sought to invalidate the lawsuit. Abramson’s conflict of interest seemed glaring to most. Environmentalists cried foul and demanded Abramson recuse himself, but Abramson was defiant.
It ended up being a moot point. Abramson was, once again, a no-show.
This wasn’t the first time he had been accused of having a conflict of interest. In 2012, Abramson was the primary author of HB618, which was described as the oil industry’s solution to legacy lawsuits. “HB618, which is backed by oil companies, would allow oilfield operators to admit responsibility for cleanup without admitting to other allegations,” The Advocate reported. “The state would then decide how to clean up the environmental damage.”
Baton Rouge attorney Don Carmouche filed an ethics complaint against Abramson, asserting that both he and his law firm stood to benefit financially if the bill became law. And while the oil industry rushed to Abramson’s defense, at least one well-connected foot soldier of then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, Jimmy Faircloth (who was, at the time, serving as a lobbyist for the Landowner’s Association), convinced Abramson to drop the bill. If not, Faircloth and others seemed to imply, Abramson would be out of a job.
“Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, told the House during debate on his oil and gas industry-backed legislation on cleaning up pollution that he received a text message calling him to an area at the rear of the House chamber where lobbyists make their pitches during House debates,” reported The Town Talk (archived story). “He said when he went there, he was threatened that there would be consequences if he didn’t drop the bill.”
Abramson hasn’t had much luck for his other corporate clients. As an attorney, he has represented chemical manufacturers in asbestos cases. As a legislator, he has tried and failed on at least three different occasions to pass legislation that “would have resulted in significantly reduced legal judgments and unfair and duplicate regulations for asbestos victims seeking compensation for their injuries,” according to the Nemeroff Law Firm.
Abramson, who has represented railroad companies in at least fifty different lawsuits, also tried and failed to secure additional tax exemptions for suppliers of railroad ties.
In short, Neil Abramson has a long track record of skipping out on the hard stuff- the controversial votes, the things that could be considered litmus test issues- but doubling down on the things that either benefit his own accumulation of political power or the industries he represents as an attorney.
There is a simple explanation for this: He is term-limited as a state representative. Right now, he serves one of the most liberal districts in the state, but if he wants to continue his career in the legislature, he’ll have to run for the state senate district currently occupied by Conrad Appel, who is also term-limited. Appel’s senate district is dramatically more conservative than Abramson’s house district.
Four days ago, the Baton Rouge-based publication The Red Shtick dedicated an entire article to Abramson titled, “Democratic Rep. Neil Abramson Comes Out As Transparty Republican.”
Abramson, no doubt, has calculated that he can stave off criticism from his current constituents and save face with future constituents by skipping votes on anything remotely controversial. When Tyler Bridges asked him whether he was considering joining the Republican Party to run for Appel’s Senate seat, Abramson said, “I have no plans at this time with respect to my future. I have not ruled anything in or anything out.”
When asked about his position on abortion, he said to Bridges, “I don’t have any particular views.” Do women have a right to abortion? “That’s a broad question,” he said. Do you oppose abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when it threatens the life of the mother? “I’m not going to get into the details of all of this,” he told Bridges.
This is a 49-year-old, Ivy League-educated lawyer, and he expects people to believe he has no “particular views” on abortion? It’s not just cynical; it’s smug and mendacious. And it can only work for so long before people realize that you’re not being coy or nuanced; you’re being disingenuous and dishonest.
“Neil played QB in high school and free safety in college,” the popular Louisiana blogger Jeff Bostick, also known as skooks, recently observed. “Nowadays, he mostly punts.”
I attempted to contact Rep. Abramson for comment. Then I realized, he’d already blocked me.
Update: The story originally claimed that Abramson’s suit against his neighbors was resolved amicably. According to a lawyer with knowledge of the litigation, it was not. Abramson’s case was dismissed with prejudice. He then appealed and lost, both in the court and at the Board of Zoning Adjustments.