HELENA – A veteran Montana congressman is seeking a settlement in a year-old lawsuit against his hometown for the way it handled a wildfire on his land. But the city maintains Rep. Denny Rehberg and his wife have yet to even specify what they’re seeking or file the paperwork needed to jumpstart the slow-moving case.
The lawsuit is unfolding amid the biggest campaign of Rehberg’s career as he challenges incumbent U.S. Sen. Jon Tester in 2012.
Both candidates are expected to set fundraising records in Montana, and the race has already been tagged one of the biggest in the country as both parties vie for control of the Senate.
Rehberg’s lawsuit has seen little movement since he and his wife, Jan, filed it last July. The couple claims firefighters from Billings were pulled too quickly from a fire that damaged land they planned to develop at Rehberg Ranch Estates.
Attorney Cliff Edwards, representing the Rehbergs’ company, said Thursday the city should settle the case, perhaps through mediation.
“We are still working very hard to resolve it amicably,” Edwards said. “That’s the goal, to get the thing settled.”
Michele Braukmann, the attorney representing Billings, said the city would like to wrap up the case. But she said the Rehbergs have not even formally served the city with the lawsuit after filing the complaint last summer, which she said is an unusually long delay.
Braukmann said she sent Edwards a request about a month ago for fact-finding mediation and has received no response. She said there is “some level of accuracy” to Edwards’ statement that both sides are interested in settlement.
“But at this point, we are not near formalizing that at all,” the Billings attorney said Friday.
Rehberg said in an interview Thursday that his wife runs the business and decided to file the lawsuit because the city would not extend the deadline for an insurance claim for the 1,200 scorched acres. He said the lawsuit is not against firefighters as his opponents claim, but rather challenges the decisions of city managers.
“It was never intended to be anything more than trying to protect her business, our business,” Rehberg said. “We are not blaming the firefighters in any way, shape or form.”
Tester’s campaign said Rehberg, if he wins the “frivolous lawsuit,” will reap a settlement paid for by Billings taxpayers.
“As a congressman, Dennis Rehberg should know he’s supposed to serve Montana’s firefighters, not sue them,” said Tester campaign manager Preston Elliott.
Rehberg is the undisputed leader of the Montana Republican Party and the GOP’s top elected official in Montana. He easily won re-election in November to the state’s sole U.S. House seat over Dennis McDonald, who made some of the same arguments critical of Rehberg’s lawsuit.
In 2009, Rehberg and several staff members were severely injured in a boat crash on Montana’s Flathead lake. The boat’s pilot, a former Montana state senator, received a four-year deferred prison sentence in the wreck.
The lawsuit says the city and the Billings fire department need to pay an unspecified amount for damages caused by the 2008 range fire. It contends pulling firefighters too early from the fire resulted in scorched trees and ground cover and irreparable damage on 1,200 acres intended for development at Rehberg Ranch Estates.
The city has argued that the fire from the Fourth of July holiday came during 100-degree heat and amid several blazes in the area. City leaders have said firefighters were working very hard on that fire and prevented it from reaching any Rehberg Ranch homes. The city also points out that no other landowners affected by the wildfire are suing the city.
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