Livingston meets latest hurdle in its Gustav cleanup costs appeal

Livingston Parish’s arbitration over $59 million in Hurricane Gustav-related cleanup work will move forward after the U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals denied the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s motion Tuesday to dismiss or delay the case.

The Washington, D.C., judicial panel said the parish met the requirements of the so-called “Gustav statute,” a provision of federal law that gives the parish an independent forum for appealing FEMA’s denials of the parish’s claims for reimbursement.

Parish President Layton Ricks said parish officials are “ecstatic” over the ruling.

“Our parish has cleared a major hurdle to obtain the funds for which the parish is ultimately responsible,” Ricks said.

The next step will be for the judicial panel to set a schedule for the proceedings, including a hearing date, Ricks said

The parish is seeking recovery of $44,002,901, for removing debris from the parish’s waterways after the 2008 storm; $14,096,899, removal of “leaners and hangers” (trees that posed an immediate threat to public safety); and $1,083,344 for direct administrative costs, Ricks said.

The $59 million claim is the largest amount to-date sought through arbitration with FEMA, attorney Hilary S. Cairnie, who is handling the parish’s case, told the Parish Council on Thursday.

FEMA had sought dismissal of the parish’s arbitration request, saying the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General first must determine whether FEMA wrongly denied the parish’s claims.

In an October 2013 report, the inspector general found FEMA failed to follow its own deadlines for responding to the parish’s appeals, but the report did not address the eligibility of the underlying claims for reimbursement.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who authored the “Gustav statute,” said in a Jan. 3 letter to the contract appeals board that the inspector general’s findings had “firmly established grounds to enter into the arbitration process.”

“My intent in writing the provision was to ensure that any and all violations of rules and regulations by FEMA — to include procedural rules and deadlines — would constitute grounds for entering into the arbitration process,” Landrieu wrote.

The panel agreed the statute is “far broader” than permitting arbitration only if the inspector general found FEMA had wrongly denied the claims.

The panel also denied FEMA’s request to delay the arbitration for 120 days to give the agency time to re-evaluate the parish’s claims with an independent expert.

The dispute has been pending for several years, and FEMA should have been thoroughly evaluating the parish’s claims from its first appeal in 2010, the panel said.

“The arbitration process should be a vehicle for bringing this dispute to a prompt conclusion, rather than delaying matters still further,” the panel said.

Ricks said the ruling is great news for the parish.

“I am looking forward to putting the debris issue behind us,” he said, adding, “I also want to thank the attorneys for their hard work to move this matter forward and I have full confidence they will see it through to fruition.”