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Appeals court: Barron official partially liable for statements (UPDATE)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A county administrator is partially liable for making defamatory statements about a former employee, a state appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The 3rd District Court of Appeals concluded former Barron County Administrator Duane Hebert is liable for defaming Gene Anderson, former patrol superintendent for the county’s highway department, on different occasions between January and March 2008. But the appeals court disagreed with a Barron County judge’s decision to fine Hebert $150,000 and reduced the penalty to $50,000.

The dispute began when Anderson sued Hebert for making defamatory statements about his job performance in 2008, once to local media and twice to the county board of supervisors. Hebert accused Anderson of directing subordinates to falsify county truck use reports to get higher reimbursements from the state.

The jury found most of Hebert’s remarks were untrue and awarded Anderson $50,000 each on two verdicts and $75,000 on another.

Hebert argued he was immune from the lawsuit because as a county administrator he was entitled to absolute legislative privilege, which would permit him to provide information freely to a legislative body without fear of a defamation lawsuit.

The appeals court disagreed, finding legislative privilege applies only when an official is testifying under oath before a legislative body. Hebert wasn’t acting as a witness when he made the remarks to the county board, which wasn’t considering any existing or potential legislation at the meeting, the court ruled.

“Hebert cannot claim a legislative privilege before a body that is not legislating,” the court’s opinion said.

Hebert’s attorney, Oyvind Wistrom, had no immediate comment. A phone message left for Peter Reinhardt, Anderson’s attorney, was not immediately returned.

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