August 20, 2008

Where Would State, Town Get Money for Station Settlements?

By Alisha A Pina

In tough financial times, West Warwick and the state have each conditionally offered to pay $10 million to victims of the 2003 fire.

No one is quite sure how financially strapped West Warwick and the equally suffering State of Rhode Island would finance their tentative $10-million settlements with the victims of the Station nightclub fire, but all say future approvals are necessary before any money is released.

The state agreement, announced Monday in federal court filings with West Warwick's similar pact, was presented with approval from Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch. The lawyer handling the case for the state is James R. Lee, who heads the civil division for Lynch's office, Lynch spokeswoman Beryl Kenyon said yesterday.

The proposal was "reached as a result of extensive discussions with the plaintiffs' lawyers," Lynch's Monday news release stated. It also stated that the agreement "represents the combined judgment" of Lynch, Governor Carcieri and legislative leaders, specifically the speaker of the House and the Senate president.

Carcieri spokeswoman Amy Kempe said the governor was well informed of the $10-million settlement offer and is supportive of Lynch's decision. Yet she emphasized the details were primarily negotiated and signed by Lynch's office.

She did not answer a number of key questions; most notably, she was unable to say where the governor believes the state will find the necessary money and what other state services might suffer as a result in this tight budget year.

"Much work remains to be done to finalize the agreement and to appropriate the funds needed for the settlement," Kempe wrote in an e-mail to The Journal yesterday. "The settlement has not been finalized, and the administration has yet to determine how best to appropriate the funds for the settlement."

Kenyon said the money for a settlement of this magnitude needs to be approved by the General Assembly and will go "through the legislative budget process," which includes review by both the Senate and House finance committees as well as the full Assembly. It was unclear last night whether the full Assembly would need to return in a special session to approve the pact before its scheduled January start.

In West Warwick's case, the settlement means that the town will continue to pay the price for the deadly fire, even though a majority of the officials who were blamed for the blaze no longer work for the town.

Building Inspector Stephen D. Murray was fired in February for an unrelated matter and Fire Inspector Denis Larocque retired in February. Officer Anthony Bettencourt, who was working a special detail at the club the night of the fire, still works as an officer with the Police Department.

Officials have directed all questions to town lawyer Marc Desisto, who said it would be inappropriate to answer questions or offer details until the agreement is made final.

The town will be on the hook for at least $6 million should the deal go through. Its insurer, Rhode Island Interlocal Risk Management Trust, will contribute however much is left in the town's $4-million policy after deducting the cost of defending the case in court. Officials would not disclose how much remained in the policy or the amount of the defense costs.

Kempe could not confirm whether the state also has an insurer that will soften the financial blow of the settlement.

Other necessary approvals include consent from all the victims and the court. A distribution formula by a court-appointed special master must also be approved. The money would then be divided among the families of the 100 who died during the February 2003 fireand the more than 200 others injured.

With staff reports from Talia Buford, Katherine Gregg and Cynthia Needham. [email protected] / (401) 277-7465

Originally published by Alisha A Pina, Journal Staff Writer.

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