APNewsBreak: Lawyer says Rehberg will drop lawsuit against Billings over wildfire on his land

U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg’s lawyer said Thursday that the Republican congressman is dropping his lawsuit against the city of Billings for the way firefighters handled a 2008 wildfire on his land, a legal drama that had been unfolding amid the biggest campaign of the congressman’s career.

The decision late Thursday came shortly after the city sent Rehberg a letter arguing that firefighters did their job properly. The city rejected an offer from Rehberg and his wife to settle if Billings agreed to re-evaluate firefighting standards.

Rehberg lawyer Cliff Edwards said his clients had directed him to dismiss the case. He sent a letter to the city saying the matter has become too “mired in politics.”

“Despite our firm’s belief this case has merit, and damages from the city are warranted for our clients, the Rehbergs have directed their case be dismissed, as politics have now been so injected into the case that the true substance of the matter can never be sorted out,” Edwards said in a written statement provided to The Associated Press.

The lawsuit filed in July 2010 claims firefighters failed to protect the Rehberg Ranch Estates subdivision after the wildfire scorched about 1,200 acres. Rehberg and his wife, Jan, said in the lawsuit that the initial fire was contained to only 10 acres, but city officials decided to pull firefighters off the line, which led to a flare-up a day later.

The lawsuit was filed before Rehberg challenged incumbent U.S. Sen. Jon Tester in a 2012 race that has become one of the most watched in the country as both parties battle for control of the Senate. The Tester campaign argued it was inappropriate for Rehberg to blame the wildfire on others.

“Suing firefighters who helped put out your wildfire is one of the most out-of-touch and self-serving things a person in public office could do,” said Tester campaign manager Preston Elliott.

The Rehberg campaign directed questions to Edwards.

The city of Billings wrote in a letter made available earlier Thursday, but sent earlier in the week to the Rehbergs, that it expected them to dismiss the “meritless litigation.”

The city’s attorney, Michele Braukmann, argued that 400 pages of documents already provided on the fire produce more than enough information to answer questions posed by the congressman and his wife. The letter responded to an offer late last month from the Rehbergs offering to settle “without monetary compensation” as long as the city adopted new firefighting standards.

“I would hope that, if your clients actually take the time to review the documents that I have provided you, including the incident report forms, the detailed timelines, the dispatch records, and the other documentation they will — rather than condemning the firefighters — congratulate them for a job well done,” Braukmann wrote. “I hope that I will be in receipt of dismissal paperwork for this lawsuit, and that I can let our firefighters know they can get back to the most important job they have — that of saving lives.”

The city noted that firefighters made certain that no lives or homes were lost in the wildland fire.

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