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Wednesday, 24 June 2009 15:53

Katrina refugee wades into the fray against Duke

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As Jackson County leaders continue their fight against Duke Energy, an unassuming local lawyer that few have heard of has appeared as the county’s heavy-hitter against the politically powerful and uber-wealthy Fortune 500 utility.

Attorney Gary Miller, 52, a former business lawyer from New Orleans, has been hired to represent the county in its push to seize control of the Dillsboro dam owned by Duke. Jackson leaders plan to use eminent domain to take over the dam and adjacent shoreline and turn it into a river park. The move would thwart Duke’s plan to demolish the dam, achieving the county’s long-standing goal to save the dam.

Miller spent most of his career to date representing the corporate world. His expertise lies not in the courtroom, but in pulling off complex deals and financings rife with legal maneuvering, at times plowing new ground where precedent was lacking. Miller has negotiated deals between mega-corporations like Shell and Union Carbide. He also has represented casinos, developers, financial syndicates and other large organizations, both private and publicly traded.

“Historically I have been a transaction lawyer. I am typically a paper pusher,” Miller said, downplaying his lawyering past.

A paper pusher, perhaps, but mass quantities of extremely complicated, critically worded paper. Hundreds of pages with millions on the line should the other side manage to get a fast one by in the language. Paper with months of legal maneuvering and tedious research lurking behind the ink.

“Yeah, I’m good at that,” Miller said.

Paper pushing, in the world of lawyers, is how things get done. Jackson County Manager Ken Westmoreland said Miller’s background is a good match for “peculiarities” of the eminent domain case against Duke.

“His experience is in corporate law, working both for and against big corporations. Secondly, he specializes in real estate law, and the condemnation is basically a real estate issue,” Westmoreland said.

The most typical work for Miller involved commercial financings: a gigantic loan collateralized by corporate assets scattered across the county.

“They will hire attorneys in each state to give their opinion of the enforceability of the documents or modify them to make them enforceable,” Miller said.

When some of those assets resided in Louisiana — such as a deal involving an oil might putting up its refineries as part of the collateral — Miller was their guy

“It wasn’t the kind of stuff your average lawyer had knowledge about,” Miller said.

One of Miller’s most interesting jobs involved dueling casinos vying for a single gaming license in New Orleans. The state of Louisiana awarded the gaming license to one casino, while the City of New Orleans granted a lease to a different casino operator. Both groups felt they were entitled to the license — seemingly a no-win situation.

“The governor forced the two groups into a shotgun wedding and they formed a partnership to operate and build it,” Miller said. The joint entity that emerged went bankrupt before they finished construction, complicating an already sticky situation. Miller spent the next two years helping to sort out the mess. Skill in sorting out messes will be critical to resolving the bitter fight and test of wills between Duke and Jackson County.

The path that led Miller to Western North Carolina isn’t exactly a pleasant one. Miller is one of the thousands of Hurriane Katrina refuges who left their home city of New Orleans for good in the aftermath of the devastation and struck out for a new life. Miller hung a new shingle in Bryson City, and calls Sylva home.

Ironically, a life-long love of paddling drew him to Western North Carolina during that trying time. The paddling community is an ally in Duke’s plan to demolish the Dillsboro dam, as it would open up a new stretch of free-flowing river. Miller can frequently be found paddling the Tuckasegee in his free time, and until recently, was a member of American Whitewater, a paddling advocacy group that is a stalwart defender of dam demolition. Yet when it comes to tearing down the dam, Miller sides with the county in its fight to save it. Miller could not talk about specifics in the case or the county’s strategy.

 

The fateful storm

As Hurricane Katrina bore down on Miller’s former city of New Orleans, he sent his wife and two children away. But saddled with an elderly mother on oxygen who refused to leave, Miller, too, was forced to stay behind. Sadly, his mother did not survive the paralyzing power failures that accompanied the storm.

The next day, as Miller tried to make plans to get her body out of the city, his family reached him on his cell phone and warned him of the broken levees and rising water that would soon envelop the already ravaged city. Miller escaped in time, although three weeks would pass before he could finally get his mother’s body out.

While holed up at the home of extended family the next day, Miller got a call from his law firm giving him two choices: transfer to their Houston office or their Baton Rouge office.

“I wasn’t prepared to make a decision to move,” said Miller. “I told them ‘I’ll go off on my own.’”

Miller scrounged to find a rental house for his family in Lake Charles, La., but just as they got settled in, albeit with just a few suitcases between them, a mandatory evacuation was announced for Hurricane Rita.

Miller had given one of the family vehicles to his mother’s caretaker, who had no car of her own and was stranded at a major refugee camp in Dallas. So when the evacuation order came for Rita, he piled his wife, children, mother-in-law, two golden retrievers and a pet guinea pig into their only remaining vehicle and joined the mire of traffic crawling north.

Shortly after Katrina hit, Miller had received an email from John Burton, the then general partner of Nantahala Village Resort, asking if the family was OK. Miller’s family was a regular at the Village, and he had befriended Burton after years of vacationing there. Burton had offered to put them up — an offer Miller initially declined with the intention of continuing his life in New Orleans. But as Miller reflected on his life — no home, no possessions, no job and one family car — Miller contacted Burden to tell him they were on their way.

Burton put them up for free at the Village for six weeks while they figured out what to do.

“Having lived through Katrina and two weeks later being evacuated for Rita, to be honest I was a little gun shy,” Miller said of moving back to New Orleans. “I have lived through many hurricanes, but that was something that was overwhelming.”

Miller had vacationed in WNC as a kid, often to paddle on the Nantahala. He continued the tradition with his own family, and in 1999 he and his wife bought a lot with the intention retiring here one day. They decided to make the move sooner rather than later.

“After Katrina, things and money basically had no meaning to me. My priorities were completely restructured in terms of what was important in life,” Miller said. “When you are working for a Fortune 500 company, you are just helping an officer climb the corporate ladder and make money. I had worked on a lot of ‘sexy ‘things as lawyers call it, but here I can help people. It is more rewarding professionally and emotionally.”

Miller brought a few of his big corporate clients with him, however.

“Clients said, ‘We don’t care where you are as long as you have a phone, a fax and a computer,’” Miller said.

Miller said he hasn’t experienced culture shock. He was tired of the big law firm and city life, despite the big paycheck that go with them. Miller said he paid his dues, from the 3 a.m. phone calls from big money clients who feel like talking and must be humored to missing his kid’s bedtime night after night.

While many may believe Jackson County has little chance of winning against the likes of Duke, there’s little doubt that any settlement that goes the county’s way will have to involve a very complicated game of give and take. Whatever the outcome, Miller will be back in his old element in his new WNC home.

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