U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg spoke to a state firefighters’ convention Tuesday morning in Billings and jumped directly into a controversial lawsuit that his company recently filed over how Billings firefighters fought a 2008 wildfire on Rehberg’s property north of the Rimrocks.
“This has absolutely nothing to do with the firefighters,” the Republican congressman said. “I trust you, I believe in you, I respect you. I would not insult you. And, in fact, I was standing next to you fighting that fire.”
On July 2, Rehberg’s lawyer filed the suit in District Court alleging that Billings firefighters breached their duty in July 2008 by failing to protect the Rehberg Ranch Estates subdivision after a wildfire scorched about 1,200 acres. Rehberg said the initial fire was contained to only 10 acres, but city officials made the decision to pull firefighters off the line, which led to the flare-up a day later. Rehberg’s lawsuit asks for money from the city.
A two-year statute of limitations was about to expire on civil action over the fire, and Rehberg attorney Cliff Edwards had unsuccessfully asked the city to extend the deadline. Rehberg filed the lawsuit just before the deadline and said he just wanted to know why no firefighters were on scene to make sure the fire didn’t re-ignite. The city never gave him that answer, he said.
“We were surprised. We thought somebody would actually like to share that information with us, (but) no,” Rehberg said. “So once again, it had absolutely nothing to do with you. It had everything to with the decisions that were made at the top. Ultimately, the buck stops at the city administrator and the fire chief, and those are the people we hope to get some answers from.”
Later Tuesday, Edwards released a letter that Rehberg’s wife, Jan, sent to city officials in February 2009. In the letter, Jan Rehberg asked City Administrator Tina Volek for a formal meeting with city fire officials to explain what happened during the fire. The city never responded to the letter, Edwards said.
Rehberg asked to address the firefighters’ convention after the lawsuit took a political turn and Rehberg came under attack from his Democratic opponent, Dennis McDonald of Melville. Wearing a Melville Volunteer Fire Department cap, McDonald stood in the back of the room and smiled as Rehberg said the lawsuit had become politicized for McDonald’s gain.
“I apologize that this has become a political issue,” Rehberg said. “Welcome to my world, because everything I say, everything I do, every action that I take ends up being in a political scene when you’ve got a campaign and you’ve got candidates that are willing to say and do anything to win an election.”
Rehberg addressed the lawsuit for a few minutes and then switched to the state of the economy and his view of the difference between Republicans and Democrats. After he finished speaking, Rehberg met privately for 30 minutes with the leadership of Local 521, the union that represents Billings firefighters.
Neither Rehberg nor Local 521 leadership would comment about what was said in the closed-door meeting.
Rehberg’s appearance at the convention wasn’t planned well in advance, but he apparently met with some of the firefighters at a social event Monday night, and last week he asked convention organizers for the chance to speak. The press wasn’t notified in advance of the speech, and even some Rehberg staffers seemed caught off-guard by his appearance at the convention.
Rehberg and the firefighters tried to downplay the political tension in the air, as McDonald was already slated to speak at 1 p.m. Some of the firefighters were trying to distance themselves from the politics surrounding the lawsuit.
Tod Miller, a battalion chief in Miles City and president of the Montana State Council of Professional Fire Fighters, said his organization wouldn’t comment on the lawsuit.
“We’ll continue to withhold any comment regarding that,” he said. “It doesn’t involve firefighters. We’re not interested in our membership, our organization or our international (union) being used in any way because we’re not part of it.”