ACA.supremecourt.070419

A contractor who formerly worked with the city-parish's mosquito abatement agency is suing the Baton Rouge Business Report and two East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council members for a series of articles he claims contained false and defamatory statements that impugned his reputation.

The lawsuit was filed in state district court in Baton Rouge in mid-September by attorney Jill Craft on behalf of Gary Beard, a former state lawmaker whose Baton Rouge-based engineering firm, Beard International, was the subject of a February cover story and additional coverage in the Business Report.

Those stories scrutinized Beard's firm for costs associated with building the city-parish's new mosquito abatement headquarters. They also questioned his firm's role in coming up with what some saw as an exorbitantly high quote to construct a proposed tire shredding facility. 

The lawsuit alleges, in part, that councilmen Dwight Hudson and Matt Watson worked with the Baton Rouge Business Report to paint Beard in a false public light after he had argued against the idea of purchasing a portable tire-shredder.

According to the lawsuit, Watson approached Todd Walker, then the city-parish's Mosquito Abatement and Rodent Control director, in late 2018 and suggested he use federal grant money to purchase a portable tire-shredder.

After researching its feasibility, Beard, who often advised Walker, told Watson it would be "virtually impossible" to secure environmental permits for a portable tire shredder, the lawsuit says. 

Watson ignored that advice and instead told Beard to work with Bubba Cashio, the city-parish's director of building and grounds, to write contract specifications tailored to Watson's favored associates, the lawsuit alleges. 

Beard told Cashio that the portable shredder would result in higher costs for the city-parish, to which Cashio responded that the Council could be falsely told there were "construction overruns," the lawsuit alleges.

When asked for comment on Cashio's alleged remarks, Mark Armstrong, the mayor's spokesman, said they do not comment on pending litigation. 

The Baton Rouge Business Report, speaking through its attorney Larry Roedel, said it stands behind its reporting. Councilman Dwight Hudson called the lawsuit frivolous, deferring additional comments to the Parish Attorney's Office. 

Councilman Matt Watson denied the allegations about trying to have the tire-shredder purchased from a favored company and said the lawsuit is an attempt to stop public officials and media organizations from conducting oversight of how public dollars are spent. 

"I look forward to a declarative judgement that will stop anyone that wants to muzzle someone whose sworn duty it is to follow tax dollars and make sure they're used efficiently," Watson said.

Jill Craft, however, said the lawsuit is an attempt for Beard to "clear his name."

"He's lost contracts. He's lost business. More importantly, as a decades long public servant, he's lost his reputation," Craft said.

Beard's lawsuit refers to a what it says were a number of inaccuracies in the Business Report's reporting, some of which were later corrected in addendums online. 

That includes a claim that there were "hundreds of questionable change orders" on the mosquito abatement headquarters project. Following the article's publication, the Business Report changed that language to "scores upon scores of changes and upgrades" after it could verify only four change orders containing 55 individual components. 

Beard also challenges the Business Report for reporting that he incurred "some $1.8 million in campaign debt" during his unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor. That's significantly more than the $50,000 loan and $41,000 in fundraising that's shown on campaign finance documents, which are readily accessible to the public on the Louisiana Ethics Commission website, the lawsuit notes.

The lawsuit argues this was an attempt to paint Beard as a "failed politician and one who does not pay his debts."

The Business Report also incorrectly reported that Beard had left the Catholic Church to become an evangelical Christian. Beard argues that caused his Catholic colleagues to question his faith.

The Business Report said it regretted the errors but stands by its story. 

"We corrected errors as soon as Mr. Beard brought them to our attention back in April and we regret those errors," said Roedel, speaking on behalf of the Business Report. "We stand behind our story."

Beard first faced public scrutiny last November when Todd Walker, then the city-parish's Mosquito Abatement and Rodent Control director, told the Metro Council that a $605,000 grant to build a tire shredder had swelled into a $1.6 million project. Walker said Beard's firm had provided the cost estimates. 

The city-parish intervened and succeeded in knocking the cost down to $888,000, largely by relying on in-house architects and engineers instead of private contractors. The new facility is expected to begin operations in the spring. 

Shortly after that November meeting, councilman Hudson texted a copy of the MARC budget to Stephanie Riegel, an editor at the Business Report, highlighting the professional services provided by Beard's firm, the lawsuit alleges. 

Before the February publication of the article, Watson and Hudson exchanged text messages about the forthcoming story, the suit says, and discussed having secured the necessary votes from their colleagues on the Metro Council to take action.

Four days before the article's publication, the suit says, Hudson texted councilman Scott Wilson: "Give me a call when you have a second please. Matt [Watson] and I are going to move forward on removing Dr. Walker from Mosquito Abatement rodent control. Didn't want to be caught off-guard by it."

Two days before publication, the suit claims, Hudson and Watson texted again about talking to Walker about resigning. "Should be an easy conversation tomorrow after reading this," one wrote, sending a photograph of the not-yet-published Business Report cover, according to the court filing. 

Roedel, speaking on behalf of the Business Report, said council members were not provided with an advance copy of the publication. 

Metro Council approves private contractor to operate tire shredder

According to the lawsuit, 13 days after the story's publication, Riegel exchanged texts with Hudson, asking "if the plan is still same as it was two weeks ago" regarding Todd Walker.

Hudson responded that he had "spoken to several other council members" and that they will "continue with the removal process as planned," the suit says. The Metro Council later ordered Todd Walker to resign. 

One-on-one text discussions between council members regarding a particular issue are generally not a violation of the state's open meetings laws, said Karen White, executive counsel at the Louisiana Municipal Association.

However, if conversations occur one-on-one in a rapid succession among multiple officials, that could constitute a "rolling quorum," which would be illegal. That would require very specific time stamps to prove, White said. 

Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater