Ricks-Livingston council stalemate stymies settlement talks in litigation with engineering firm _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks

A stalemate between the Livingston Parish Council and Parish President Layton Ricks threatens to blow a potential settlement deal between the parish and its former road engineering firm.

Parish officials and Alvin Fairburn & Associates, where Ricks worked before taking office in 2012, have been in negotiations for their ongoing contract dispute since late July, when Ricks first publicly disclosed Fairburn’s desire to settle the matter.

Livingston and Fairburn are embroiled in a pair of lawsuits stemming from the firm’s contract, terminated in 2012, for engineering work on the parish’s road overlay program. The firm also has sued two Parish Council members personally for allegedly defamatory comments they made to a reporter about the firm’s billing for a road project.

Each of the lawsuits seeks damages or reimbursement of funds, potentially involving hundreds of thousands of dollars on top of the more than $200,000 the parish already has paid to attorneys working on the cases.

With deadlines for certain appeals and court filings in those cases next week, the window of opportunity for settlement is quickly closing, Fairburn’s attorney, Brad Rhorer, said Tuesday.

But an argument between Ricks and the council over $28,000 in legal fees for the two council members apparently ground the settlement talks to a halt last week.

Records The Advocate obtained Tuesday indicate the two sides were close to a deal that would have included the dismissal of all lawsuits between Fairburn and the parish, including the firm’s defamation case against council members Marshall Harris and Cindy Wale.

Fairburn also would have paid the parish an undisclosed amount of money, a portion of which would be paid by the firm’s insurance company, parish legal adviser Christopher Moody indicated in a letter emailed to Ricks and the council late Monday afternoon.

The deal was supposed to have been sealed at Thursday night’s Parish Council meeting, but the council emerged from executive session and took no action.

In a series of emails flying back and forth Monday night, Council Chairman Ricky Goff blamed Ricks for the hold-up, while Ricks pointed the finger back at Goff.

Moody, the parish legal adviser, urged the two branches to meet with lawyers this week to see if they could reach a resolution on those issues “so that these cases can all be settled and we can stop the bleeding.”

Rhorer said no meeting had been set as of Tuesday afternoon.

Goff said in his emails Monday that the council had agreed in principle Thursday to the settlement, but Ricks refused to sign a letter promising to pay Harris’ and Wale’s legal bills in defending the defamation case.

Ricks replied that it was Goff who trampled over the settlement by insisting that the council’s lawsuit for a court order compelling payment of those bills moves forward.

Goff said the council’s dismissal of its lawsuit, known as a writ of mandamus, was never part of the proposed settlement deal. Ricks said it absolutely was.

The dispute is further complicated by a second defamation case — filed against Harris and Wale by former Council Clerk Mary Kistler — stemming from the same allegations as the Fairburn defamation lawsuit.

It was unclear Tuesday whether any potential settlement would include the dismissal of Kistler’s case and payment of the two council members’ legal bills in defending that lawsuit. Harris and Wale are represented by the same attorney in both defamation cases, which have been consolidated. Their legal bills have totaled about $28,000 to date.

Goff said Tuesday that if the Kistler case moves forward, or if Ricks pays only a portion of Harris’ and Wale’s bills, the mandamus must move forward. If the bills are paid in full, it would moot the mandamus, he said.

“All we needed was for him to commit that he would pay those bills,” Goff said.

Ricks said Tuesday he couldn’t sign anything until all the attorneys involved had structured the settlement, and in any event, he would not pay the two council members’ attorney bills while the council continued to sue him.

Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter @HeidiRKinchen.