Firm will not target parish government in defamation case

An engineering firm’s decision to relieve Livingston Parish of liability in a defamation lawsuit against two council members is calling into question whether the parish can legally pay for their defense.

Alvin Fairburn & Associates said in a court filing Wednesday that it has no intention of holding the parish responsible for comments council members Marshall Harris and Cindy Wale made in a WBRZ news story that aired in March.

The TV report accused the firm of conspiring in 2011 with then-Council Clerk Mary Kistler to alter the wording of a resolution and charge the parish more than the council authorized for engineering work on a road project.

The lawsuit seeks damages against Harris and Wale personally because the firm says the pair were acting outside the scope of their official duties as council members when they made the comments.

Kistler filed a similar lawsuit in April against Harris and Wale personally.

Neither lawsuit named the parish or the television station as defendants.

A state attorney general opinion issued Oct. 7 said the parish could pay for Harris and Wale’s defense if the parish determined that the two were acting in their official capacity and that the parish may be legally liable for those acts.

Court documents Fairburn filed Wednesday take a swipe at the second condition by saying the firm “releases Livingston Parish from all liability — past, present or future — associated with the statements by Harris and Wale.”

The firm will not seek to recover any costs, attorney fees or damages against the parish in connection with the case.

The council members’ attorney, Charles Schutte, said the engineering firm’s stipulation should have “no effect whatsoever” on the lawsuit because the parish was never a party to the case.

“But I’m sure someone will argue that it does,” Schutte said, declining further comment.

Parish legal adviser Christopher Moody said it may depend on how effective the stipulation is in shielding the parish from liability.

The question is whether the parish can pay to defend a case in which its own coffers are not at risk, Moody said.

“It could create a possible violation of the state constitution, which says that you can’t pay anything with public funds to benefit an individual,” Moody said.

Moody cautioned, however, that he had not yet seen the court filing, and said he and parish officials would have to study it before deciding whether to move forward in paying Schutte’s bills or seek an updated attorney general opinion.

Parish President Layton Ricks echoed that sentiment, saying he would have to consult with Moody about what the filing means for the parish.

Harris and Wale both declined to comment, saying Schutte had advised them not to speak about the case.