Suit possible over legal fees in defamation suit in Livingston Parish

The Livingston Parish Council could file a lawsuit seeking to force Parish President Layton Ricks to pay the legal bills of two council members sued personally for comments they made about his former employer.

The move, which is slated to be discussed at Thursday night’s council meeting, is the latest in an ongoing battle between the two parish branches over whether the parish should pay for the council members’ defense.

Council members Marshall Harris and Cindy Wale face a pair of lawsuits filed by Alvin Fairburn & Associates, where Ricks worked before his election, and by Mary Kistler, the former council clerk and Ricks’ executive assistant.

The lawsuits claim Harris and Wale made defamatory statements about the firm and Kistler in a WBRZ-TV report that aired in March 2013. The report claimed Kistler had changed the wording of a resolution to allow the engineering firm to bill for work the council had not authorized.

Fairburn and Kistler seek damages from the council members personally, not from the parish.

The Parish Council has twice ordered Ricks to pay Harris’ and Wale’s legal bills and, on July 24, set a seven-day deadline for payment. Ricks repeatedly has refused, citing a state attorney general opinion that suggested withholding payment until after a judgment is rendered in the case.

Council Chairman Ricky Goff said the move to request a writ of mandamus — a court order compelling a public official to act — is necessary to underscore the point that it is the council, not the parish president, who has the authority to decide whether to pay the attorney fees.

Ricks disagreed, saying, “It’s absolutely premature and ridiculous for the council to hire an attorney to sue a member of its own government to pay for a private lawsuit where the parish has absolutely no liability, no risk, especially when I’ve said all along that if they win their suit, I’ll reimburse their fees.”

A state attorney general’s opinion, issued Oct. 7, said the Parish Council could choose to pay the legal bills if it determined that Harris and Wale were acting as public officials when they made the comments.

However, the opinion also suggested the parish withhold payment until the lawsuits are over, in case the court decides the council members acted outside the scope of their official duties and should be held personally liable for their comments.

The council already had passed two resolutions on June 13, 2013, saying Harris and Wale had acted in their official capacity in giving the interviews and ordering payment of their legal bills.

When Ricks again refused to pay, the council voted Dec. 5 to hire a Hammond attorney to file a writ of mandamus forcing payment. That attorney, Brett K. Duncan, declined the case for unspecified reasons, and the council dropped the issue until last month.

Goff, the council chairman, said Ricks has a duty under the parish’s Home Rule Charter to carry out the actions of the council.

“At the end of the day, it’s not his choice; it’s the council’s,” Goff said. “He can voice his objections, and he has, but he swore an oath, and the question now is whether he’s going to follow through on it.”

Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter @HeidiRKinchen.