Livingston, FEMA square off in Washington over $59 million

Two at odds over ’08 storm cleanup costs

Livingston Parish’s legal team is feeling confident going into the final two days of arbitration over $59 million in unpaid cleanup costs from Hurricane Gustav, the parish’s lead attorney said late Wednesday.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals in Washington, D.C., is hearing arguments this week in the parish’s ongoing dispute with the Federal Emergency Management Agency over the unpaid bills.

Settlement negotiations over the weekend proved unsuccessful, Hilary S. Cairnie, the parish’s lead attorney on the case, said Wednesday evening.

Cairnie declined to say how much was offered in settlement or by whom, but stressed that the negotiations should not be viewed as a negative.

“It would be highly unusual in a case of this type for the parties not to engage in settlement dialogue at some point,” Cairnie, of Baker Hostetler, said.

The parish sought binding arbitration before the panel after FEMA repeatedly refused to pay the bulk of the costs for clearing the parish’s canals and rights-of-way following the 2008 storm.

FEMA has alleged the parish’s contractors submitted fraudulent claims for reimbursement. Parish officials have said FEMA representatives on the ground praised the parish’s work and only later raised concerns.

Cairnie said the parish’s legal team finished presenting its case around 1 p.m. Wednesday, when FEMA began calling its own witnesses.

The parish will be allowed to rebut FEMA’s witnesses before the weeklong hearing concludes Friday, Cairnie said.

Parish Council Chairman Ricky Goff flew into Washington, D.C, Wednesday night in the hopes of hearing some of that testimony first-hand.

Goff said Wednesday afternoon he had not heard anything from Parish President Layton Ricks since the hearing began Monday.

“No courtesy call, no update, no info, nothing,” Goff said.

Goff had asked Ricks to include him on the parish’s list of attendees for the hearing and offered to pay his own way, but Goff’s name was not among the 20 — mostly attorneys — who made the list.

Goff previously said he would travel to Washington, D.C., anyway.

He expressed hope Wednesday afternoon that he would be able to get into the building and perhaps even the hearing room.

Cairnie said the courtroom has been packed to capacity every day.

“I can’t fathom a scenario where he’d be allowed into the hearing room,” Cairnie said. “It really is a very, very tight space.”

Goff said if he cannot get into the hearing room, or at least into the building, he will try to catch up with Ricks and the parish’s legal team during breaks or at the end of the day.

Councilwoman Joan Landry said Goff could sit outside the hearing room with Ricks’ wife, who also is not allowed in the courtroom.

“She said she and Ricky will become good friends waiting together,” Landry said.

Landry said she had received few updates on the case, except for a daily text message that all had gone according to plan.

She declined to say who sent the messages.

Landry said Ricks has been instructed by the parish’s attorney not to talk about the case.

Councilmen Marshall Harris and Jim Norred said they have not heard anything on the status of the case.

“Not a word,” Harris said. “The council is in the dark on this.”

Norred said he did not know what was happening at the hearing, but he is keeping his fingers crossed that things are going well for the parish.

Cairnie declined to say which of the parish’s witnesses have testified thus far and which will testify on rebuttal.

“We did not call all that we could have, but our case is not technically over until we call rebuttal on Friday afternoon,” Cairnie said.

A few of the parish’s witnesses were slated to testify by video conference, a process the judges panel approved weeks ago, he said.

However, late last week, the panel told the parties that video equipment in the courtroom where the hearing is being held was not working, he said.

The panel agreed to hear testimony by telephone instead, Cairnie said, and one or more of the parish’s potential rebuttal witnesses may testify by that method.

Cairnie said the parish is facing “a determined and resolved opponent in FEMA, one who will spare no measure to try to beat back liability. And so we are equally engaged.”