Dispute over work under EBR contract lands in court

Commercial at center of flap

A billing dispute that raised questions over how an East Baton Rouge Parish agency handles contracts has spilled into city and state district courts with competing legal actions from the two companies involved.

In February, Marmillion Gray Media filed a lawsuit in City Court seeking to recover $15,020 it says it was never paid under an agreement it had with 1stCo Inc. 1stCo had been awarded a contract to work on a project called Red Stick Ready TV for the Mayor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, the filings show.

The city-parish hired 1stCo to produce 13 television shows for cable television to educate the public on how to prepare for emergencies such as hurricanes, fires, floods and chemical spills, records show.

Marmillion Gray Media says in its suit that it had an agreement with 1stCo to provide media and support services for the Red Stick Ready TV project, which it did from August 2009 through September 2010. Marmillion Gray submitted 13 invoices for the work, the suit says.

After paying 12 invoices, 1stCo refused to pay the final invoice, which covered work Marmillion Gray performed from June 2010 through September of the same year, according to the suit.

Rannah Gray, president of Marmillion Gray and an adviser on all three of Kip Holden’s successful campaigns for mayor-president, referred questions about the legal dispute to the firm’s attorney, William Lowery.

Lowery said his client was just trying to collect on an unpaid bill.

“There was a contract with them,” he said. “I know one thing, they didn’t send (the money) to my client.”

In its response to Marmillion Gray’s City Court filing, 1stCo claimed any services listed on the 13th invoice were not requested or overseen by 1stCo, but rather by MOHSEP, the mayor’s homeland security and emergency preparedness office.

1stCo also has filed a separate petition in state District Court in which it says MOHSEP overpaid 1stCo by $15,020 for “services that were not performed or supervised” by 1stCo. The petition says the company “believes that the services may have been performed by the defendant, Marmillion Gray Media, Inc., at the supervision and/or request” of MOHSEP.

In its petition, 1stCo says it wrote a check in the amount of $15,020 to MOHSEP on Feb. 22, 2011, to refund the money. The company said it asked MOHSEP to disburse the money to Marmillion Gray or to give 1stCo written authority to disburse the money to Marmillion Gray, but that permission never came.

After receiving no response from MOHSEP, 1stCo says in the petition, it sent a refund check for $15,020 to the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness in May and requested the state agency disburse the funds to the “appropriate entity.”

The petition says 1stCo sent the check to GOHSEP because the state agency “currently monitors and directs funding of the defendant MOHSEP.”

In its filing, 1stCo offers to place the $15,020 on deposit with the East Baton Rouge Parish clerk of court until the court decides who has the right to collect the money. 1stCo says it doesn’t believe it has “the authority or the right to disburse” the disputed $15,020 to Marmillion Gray.

When contacted last week, Matthew Hodgkins, general manager for 1stCo, referred all questions to his attorney, Lexlee Overton. Overton did not respond to several messages left at her office.

Lowery declined to comment on 1stCo’s state District Court filing because he said he had not seen it yet. In its petition, 1stCo seeks a court order prohibiting Marmillion Gray from proceeding any further with its action in City Court, arguing that the proper jurisdiction for the dispute is state court.

In June 2011, Hodgkins told an Advocate reporter that he had been directed to use Marmillion Gray on the project. 1stCo was to be paid $7,250 a month for video production work, while a separate $5,000 a month under 1stCo’s contract was to pay for marketing and public relations support services, records show.

In that June 2011 interview, Hodgkins said he never had a signed agreement with Marmillion Gray and was never comfortable with the arrangement. He said he tried to make it clear in 1stCo’s billings to the city-parish that his company was not directing or overseeing Marmillion Gray’s work, even though Marmillion was submitting invoices for the work through 1stCo.

1stCo sent MOHSEP separate invoices for Marmillion Gray’s portion of the work, marking them: “Third Party Expense - Invoice as received from Marmillion/Gray - Red Stick Ready.”