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Levee Blues

The fallout from the firing of Public Works Director Clarence Corbin continues

Daniel D'Ambrosio

July 15, 2009

The city is refusing to pay a consulting engineer who worked for fired Public Works Director Clarence Corbin on Hartford's levees, and at least one city councilman is worried that more costly lawsuits are on the horizon for the city as a result.

Last week, City Councilman Larry Deutsch had Corbin and West Hartford engineer Richard Moffitt attend a meeting of his Health and Human Services Committee to give their side of the story, but no one was there from Public Works, despite Deutsch's request they attend to speak for the city.

Deutsch is worried about lawsuits possibly resulting from the entire Corbin affair. Overall, said Deutsch, he believes the city council "has not been fully informed" about the legal issues surrounding Corbin and the levees, nor about their physical condition. If the levees, built some 70 years ago, were ever decertified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and/or the Army Corps of Engineers, about 800 businesses and homeowners would be required to have flood insurance at a cost of tens of millions of dollars in premiums. U.S. Rep. John Larson was scheduled to meet with constituents in West Hartford Tuesday night to discuss flood insurance that might be required for homeowners there there as a result of revised federal floodplain maps. FEMA certifies the levees to handle a 100-year flood, while the Corps certifies them for a 500-year flood. (One-hundred- and 500-year floods are estimated levels of flood water expected every 100, or 500, years.)

Moffitt says he is owed more than $17,000 by the city for work he did for Corbin to help secure funding for essential maintenance on Hartford's levee system. The city has refused to pay, claiming Moffitt was acting as a lobbyist at Corbin's request, not as an engineer, despite the fact that the city already has an official Washington lobbyist. Corbin was fired as a result. But Moffitt denies the charge, and wants his money for what he says was engineering work.

"We're supposed to be the financial directors of the city," said Deutsch. "We want to avoid a lawsuit over this matter, because a lawsuit would require further expense of city attorneys that's unnecessary if they simply pay [Moffitt] what's owed for good work."

"We're not going away," said Moffitt in an interview last week. "We did legitimate work."

The city refused to pay Moffitt after charging that Corbin used Moffitt's West Hartford engineering firm to illicitly hire a lobbying firm called The Ferguson Group, instead of using the city's official Washington lobbyist, Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz.

But Moffitt says he, not Corbin, retained The Ferguson Group to help him find a way, on the city's behalf, to raise the estimated $40 to $50 million that will be needed to bring the levees up to the Army Corps of Engineers' standards for a 500-year flood.

Shortly after firing Corbin, the city asked the Office of State Ethics to investigate Moffitt, charging that he was acting as a lobbyist without registering with the state as required by law. Based on materials provided by Moffitt's attorney, Robert Ludgin including purchase orders from the city for the work Moffitt did the OSE found there was no basis for a complaint against Moffitt.

On June 18, Ludgin wrote to Corporation Counsel John Rose, who represents the city, saying, "I have just received word from the Office of State Ethics that based on its evaluation of your complaint to it about my clients it has decided that your complaint was meritless. For that reason, your complaint has been dismissed."

Ludgin goes on to again ask for the money owed Moffitt's engineering firm, saying, "I am hopeful that the decision of the Office of State Ethics will cause you to reconsider and re-evaluate your position on this matter and to decide to make a prompt payment to my client of what is owed to it [$17,480.42] by the City."

Rose answered in a terse letter on June 19, saying of Moffitt, "We do not intend to pay him another nickel." In the final sentence of his letter Rose addresses Ludgin's Freedom of Information request, made in April, for invoices and e-mails connected to Moffitt's work for the city. Rose says he will get Ludgin the balance of materials "shortly."

Ludgin and Moffitt are still waiting to receive the documents they asked for on April 8, which they believe will prove the city was about to pay Moffitt when the Corbin situation blew up.

"I want to see the things I think they're holding back on," said Ludgin. "I want to see the invoices of my client showing time stamps at the finance office. I want to see who approved them and any e-mails they have that went back and forth."

Ludgin says he believes a check was actually cut by the city to pay Moffitt the balance he was owed, but that after the controversy with Corbin erupted "somebody said, 'Don't give him that check.'" He says he is prepared to subpoena city employees to testify if the city denies the existence of the check.

"We want to see whatever was there to show they really had approved [Moffitt's work] and were about to pay [him]," said Ludgin.

A phone call and e-mail to Sarah Barr, Mayor Eddie Perez's communications director, asking for comment on Ludgin's allegations went unanswered on Monday.

Ludgin filed a complaint with the Freedom of Information Commission concerning his FOI request and the Commission has scheduled a hearing for July 31. It's familiar territory for the city, which has stonewalled numerous FOI requests. As the Hartford Courant reported on April 3, the city has paid more than $125,000 to outside legal firms to defend against FOI complaints brought against it since 2008. That number is only going up.

"Obviously, they don't believe in the FOI law at city hall," said Ludgin.

Meanwhile, the city faced a critical deadline on July 5 to meet FEMA's requirements for handling a 100-year flood, and submitted documentation on July 1 showing the levees do meet those requirements, according to Art Christian, supervising civil engineer for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Moffitt, however, insists the work has not yet been done to meet FEMA requirements, contradicting Christian. He claims that if anyone believes the documentation submitted by the city on July 1 is going to satisfy FEMA "they are so sadly mistaken." A ruling is expected from FEMA in about a month.

Everyone agrees that a much bigger, and much more expensive, challenge looms for meeting the Army Corps of Engineers' requirements for handling a 500-year flood. The Corps has not yet set a firm deadline for meeting those requirements, but is said to be leaning hard on the city, given the catastrophe of Katrina in New Orleans.

"There's a bunch more [money] needed and I don't really know where it's coming from," said Christian.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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