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Former Louisiana House speaker part of $9 million swampland deal at taxpayer expense

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This portion of Bayou Chevreuil in St. James Parish leads to 2,000 acres of swampland the state is buying from a group that includes the former speaker of the Louisiana House of Representatives. The purchase price for the property is $9 million, and the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries intends to give the land to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette for research. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)

This story was originally published by the Louisiana Illuminator.

The state of Louisiana has set aside $9 million to buy 2,000 acres of swampland in St. James and Lafourche parishes that is partly owned by Charles DeWitt, a former House speaker and Public Service Commissioner.

State government is making the purchase for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, which intends to use the property to study carbon sequestration. Some of the property could also be leased to private industry.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has embraced carbon sequestration, but environmental advocates said they will object to any carbon storage taking place on this site, made up of vulnerable wetlands.

The deal for the swamp purchase came together quietly. Senators inserted the $9 million allocation into the state budget, along with dozens of other items, just days before lawmakers gave it final approval in May.

Lawmakers didn’t debate the land acquisition publicly, even though it involves an unusual arrangement in which the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries will buy the site on behalf of UL Lafayette. As of last week, the state had no written agreement in place for the purchase yet.

“We have never been asked to purchase property on behalf of someone else,” said Cole Garrett, general counsel for the agency. “It is a unique situation.”

DeWitt told the Illuminator he has not been involved in negotiations with the state over the land sale. He owns the property with five other people, some of whom are political donors, through a series of limited liability companies. One of his business partners, Jeff Richardson, has been handling most of the discussions with the state.

“I haven’t talked to anyone or done anything,” DeWitt said.

Legislators insist land purchase wasn’t a political favor

Lawmakers in charge of the budget process said they didn’t know that DeWitt was among the owners of the land until after they had approved the purchase. The property seller is listed in the budget legislation as Bayou Chevreuil Land Company, LLC, to which DeWitt belongs, but the individual owners aren’t identified by name.

“I don’t know nothing about that. I don’t know nothing about that purchase,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bodi White, R-Central, said in response to questions about DeWitt’s role in the land deal. White oversaw drafting of the budget amendment that allocated $9 million to DeWitt’s company.

DeWitt, a Democrat from Alexandria, served in the Louisiana House of Representatives from 1980 until 2008. He was House speaker from 2000 to 2004, overlapping with Gov. Mike Foster’s second term in office.

Though he left the Legislature 14 years ago, DeWitt remains politically active. Through personal donations and one of his businesses, he contributed $11,000 to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ gubernatorial campaigns. He also gave $20,000 to the Democratic Party of Louisiana in the years leading up to Edwards’ first election in 2015 and has donated a total $20,050 to legislators currently in office, according to campaign finance records.

In 2016, Edwards appointed DeWitt to the Louisiana Public Service Commission in District 4, after incumbent Clyde Holloway suddenly died. DeWitt only held the job for a few months until newly elected Republican Mike Francis took office.

Nevertheless, DeWitt said in an interview he doesn’t have strong personal connections to legislators or the governor. Only a handful of lawmakers who served with him are still in office.

“No one in the Legislature knows who I am anymore,” he said.

While several lawmakers in leadership said they were in the dark about DeWitt’s land ownership, at least one legislator knew he was involved.

Sen. Jay Luneau said he pushed for the $9 million land acquisition. Like DeWitt, Luneau is a Democrat from Alexandria.

“I did know Charlie DeWitt was one of the owners, but he is one of several owners,” Luneau said.

Some landowners are political donors

DeWitt said he owns somewhere between 10% and 20% of the land that will be purchased by the state.

At least four of the five other landowners also have businesses in central Louisiana. Richardson, Daniel Moran, and William Barron are partners in a few companies and share an office address in Alexandria. A. Dean Tyler has businesses based in Pineville.

The final owner, Pamela Gros, has run businesses out of Livingston and East Baton Rouge parishes.

Land records show James Kelly Nix, a political aide to former Gov. Edwin Edwards and the state’s elected education superintendent from 1976 to 1984, was also part of the ownership group before he died in 2020. Gros is Nix’s widow and is part of the land group through J. Kelly Nix and Associates Corp., which she owned with her late husband.

Barron, Moran and Tyler could not be reached at phone numbers or email addresses affiliated with their businesses. Gros could not be reached for comment at numbers listed for her.

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This portion of Bayou Chevreuil in St. James Parish leads to 2,000 acres of swampland the state is buying from a group that includes the former speaker of the Louisiana House of Representatives. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)

Richardson and Barron are political donors. Richardson’s companies have given Republican Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser $25,000 since 2011 and donated $2,500 to a political action committee supporting Edwards in 2021. Barron provided office space worth $15,000 to the Louisiana Democratic Party in 2019, when the governor was running for his second term, and gave the governor $2,500 in 2018.

Dewitt is actually a latecomer to the land ownership group. He didn’t join the Bayou Chevreuil Land Company until 2020, years after the other owners became involved. Moran and Nix purchased the original property in 2003. The other men joined the operation in 2011, according to business records with the Secretary of State’s office.

Richardson said the group has been looking to sell the property because it isn’t expected to reach its peak value for another decade, and he doesn’t want to spend that time nurturing its potential.

“I’m 65 years old and it’s a 10-year project. I don’t want to wait that long,” Richardson said in an interview. “The land will have recurring value, but it is going to take 10 years to fulfill its promise.”

LSU also offered the swampland

Richardson approached the LSU Foundation and UL Lafayette about acquiring the swamp property, he said. LSU has been conducting research on the site for decades. The school’s Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences started studying trees in Bayou Chevreuil in 1973.

‘‘We’ve been able to describe the long-term patterns of decline in the swamp,” LSU professor John Day said. “It’s one of the best-studied forested areas in the country.”

Still, the LSU Foundation declined an offer – the same one UL Lafayette eventually accepted – to have the land purchased outright for the school through the state budget bill.

“There was some benefit on research, but generally it was not a strategically important piece of land for the university so we elected to pass,” LSU Foundation president and CEO Robert Stuart said.

“They bought a piece of land which you didn’t need to buy to study,” Day said. “Nobody has ever kept us out of that land.”

UL Lafayette has no firm plans for the site yet, but has mentioned wanting to use it as a “living lab” to study carbon removal tech.

“A significant amount of federal funding is becoming available for research projects on carbon sequestration,” said Ramesh Kolluru, vice president for research, innovation and economic development at the university.

Kolluru mentioned wanting to work on carbon capture, direct air capture and the development of plants that can be engineered to draw more carbon out of the atmosphere.

Carbon capture involves trapping carbon dioxide as it is released into the air and sometimes transferring it in compressed form through pipelines to a storage area deep underground. Direct air capture requires sucking carbon dioxide out of the air, even if it was emitted years ago, and storing it underground.

UL Lafayette said it will also consider leasing the land to industrial users who might want to use it for carbon removal. Companies may also be interested in using the property as an environmental mitigation bank, where a business purchases land to restore in order to offset damage they might be causing to the environment in another location.

“We are still early in the process. We haven’t fully implemented any of these ideas or come close to implementing them,” Kolluru said.

Carbon capture controversial

Louisiana is already planning to put carbon dioxide liquid under Lake Maurepas, a nearby swampy area similar to Bayou Chevreuil. Air Products, a Pennsylvania company that specializes in carbon capture, is expected to open in Ascension Parish in 2026 and use state land around Maurepas for storage.

Still, carbon capture is controversial. Just last week, the New Orleans City Council voted to block carbon sequestration facilities and pipelines from the city.

Environmental groups said the pipelines and wells required to make carbon capture and direct air capture function would harm the wetlands at Bayou Chevreuil. They argue vegetation in the swamp already naturally removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and it would be put in harm’s way through those types of projects.

“This property is one of the worst places to do that kind of injection well,” said Scott Eustis, community science director with Healthy Gulf, which advocates for renewable energy. “It’s hurting the thing that is actually removing the carbon from the atmosphere.”

Day at LSU also questioned whether activity on the property would be as lucrative as Richardson and Kolluru had implied.

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State Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, said he was involved in pushing for Louisiana state government to buy swampland in St. James and Lafourche parishes that might be worth as much as $9 million. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)

“I think it is a great place to do scientific research, but making any significant amount of money is not going to happen. That’s just my opinion,” Day said. “If the industry thought they could make a lot of money doing those things, that is what they would be doing.”

The landowners have already tried to market this property as a mitigation bank for the private sector. It’s listed as a “turnkey mitigation option” on the website of Ecosystem Renewal, a company owned by Moran, one of the landowners. It’s not clear how long the swamp area has been on the mitigation bank market. Moran didn’t respond to phone calls and emails sent to a phone number and email address on the Ecosystem Renewal website.

Swampland owner to profit from the sale

Moran, as one of the original owners of the land, stands to make a significant amount of money off of the Bayou Chevreuil sale. If the state ends up purchasing 2,000 acres for $9 million, the deal will be worth around $4,200 per acre. Moran and Nix bought a larger swath of land – around 7,800 acres – that encompasses the site back in 2003 for just $216 per acre, according to land records.

This won’t be the first time the state will pay millions of dollars for the swampy Bayou Chevreuil land. St. James Parish has used $12 million of state construction project money since 2007 to purchase parcels from the Bayou Chevreuil Land Company, according to parish land records. In the most recent purchases – the ones that have taken place since 2013 – the parish has paid about $4,200 per acre for their property, the same rate which the state is expecting to pay.

The land sale will have to go through a state-approved appraisal process first. By law, Louisiana is not allowed to purchase any property at a price that is over its appraised value.

“They are going to pay fair market value,” Matthew Block, general counsel for the governor, said regarding the Bayou Chevreuil purchase.