AFB sues Herbst for interfering with Stamford contract

The back-and-forth battle between Trumbull resident and former school facilities manager Al Barbarotta and First Selectman Tim Herbst raged on this week when the AFB Construction Management boss filed another lawsuit against the town’s top official at the State Superior Court in Bridgeport.

Less than two months after reaching a $20,000 settlement with Herbst and the town for alleged tortious interference that caused him to lose a business deal with Trumbull Loves Children preschool, Barbarotta served the first selectman with a 15-page document that lists 76 individual complaints and highlights, specifically, actions that lost AFB an expected $1.1-million contract with the city of Stamford and its Board of Education for maintenance work on buildings, facilities and parks.

“Herbst, in his personal capacity, interfered with AFB’s business expectancy with the City of Stamford when he colluded with [former Mayor Michael] Pavia to ensure that the City of Stamford withdrew its offer to award AFB the $1.1 million buildings, facilities, and parks maintenance contracts,” the lawsuit reads.

“Herbst, in his personal capacity, also interfered with the AFB’s business expectancy with the City of Stamford’s Board of Education when he influenced the board to deny Barbarotta’s proposal to guarantee the remainder of the facilities maintenance contract executed between AFB and the City of Stamford’s Board of Education. … Herbst’s conduct was wrongful and was carried out with an improper motive and by improper means. In addition, Herbst’s conduct evinced a willful, wanton, and reckless disregard for the rights of AFB,” the lawsuit continued.

Herbst faces two charges — tortious interference and defamation — from the lawsuit.

The first selectman said the lawsuit is motivated purely by politics and comes from a point of desperation.

"I have reviewed this complaint and it is completely baseless,” he said. “It appears that Mr. Barbarotta is using the judicial system to continue a political vendetta against me.

“Mr. Barbarotta is clearly frustrated and disappointed with the outcome of the recent litigation, which resulted in a nuisance value payment by the insurer that did not even cover all of his attorney’s fees and legal costs,” Herbst added. “It is unfortunate, however, that he has chosen to continue his unhealthy obsession and hatred of me through the judicial system. I am going to let our attorneys deal with this second nuisance claim.

“I am focused on doing my job and continuing to move Trumbull forward in a positive direction,” Herbst said.

A history of animosity

AFB, which got its first municipal contract with the the town of Trumbull in 1986, had its contract renewed “without criticism” from the first selectman’s office or the Board of Education until 2009, when Herbst was first elected.

According to the lawsuit, the first selectman “showed a strong animosity toward AFB and Barbarotta” from his first days in office.

“During his early days in office, he announced his desire that AFB’s contract with the Board of Education be terminated,” the suit said, tracing the origins that led to the situation in Stamford. “While he did not achieve that specific objective for several years, he embarked from the beginning on a consistent campaign of attacking AFB and Barbarotta both through official and unofficial channels and interfering with the business of AFB, not only in Trumbull, where he served in office, but also outside its borders.”

In addition to listing more than a dozen problems with Herbst in Trumbull that stemmed from snow removal services and high school renovation work, which were already heard by a judge during the previous lawsuit proceedings, Barbarotta is claiming that the first selectman engaged in a pattern of behavior aimed at destroying the contractor’s reputation “for reasons unknown.”

“Herbst falsely accused Barbarotta of using political connections for his own personal benefit,” the 15-page document read. “Herbst has admitted that he believes Barbarotta was ‘infantile’ and ‘petulant’ for allegedly making disparaging comments about him.”

The lawsuit adds that Herbst and Pavia had a close relationship while Pavia was the mayor of Stamford from 2009 to 2013.

“Taking advantage of his close relationship with Pavia, Herbst, in his personal capacity, influenced Pavia to take actions ensuring that the $1.1-million facilities maintenance contract conditionally awarded to AFB by the City of Stamford was withdrawn.”

Guaranteed contract denied

While Herbst’s attempt to terminate Stamford’s Board of Education contract with AFB proved to be unsuccessful in the fall of 2013, according to the lawsuit, the first selectman returned to the conflict in the summer of 2015, when Barbarotta requested that the board alter its current maintenance contract to eliminate the annual renewal provision and, instead, to guarantee the maintenance contract through 2018.

In exchange, AFB offered to forgo its annual 3% salary increase — a proposal that was ultimately declined in August 2015.

However, the lawsuit said, the board noted AFB’s “exceptional work” and renewed the maintenance contract for one year.

“Herbst, in his personal capacity, exploited his political connections outside of the Town of Trumbull in an effort to influence the City of Stamford’s Board of Education to deny Barbarotta’s proposal to guarantee the remainder of the facilities maintenance contract between AFB and the city and to otherwise undermine AFB’s interests in Stamford,” the suit claims.

The complaint added that Herbst encouraged other individuals to make false and disparaging comments about Barbarotta “to third parties verbally and by extension through various press outlets, including and not limited to contacts in the Stamford Advocate and Connecticut Post newspapers.”

This action was what the lawsuit referred to as “the ongoing campaign that Herbst has waged against AFB and Barbarotta throughout Connecticut.”

Blame game

Trumbull Town Attorneys Dennis Kokenos and Vincent Marino issued a joint statement concerning a second lawsuit filed by AFB Construction Management Friday, Dec. 4.

"Mr. Barbarotta is now bringing a complaint for alleged wrongs that occurred over three years ago,” the statement said. “If these claims had any merit, he would have amended his previous complaint which he recently settled.

“These actions underscore that Mr. Barbarotta’s previous claim was baseless,” said Kokenos.  Attorney Marino reiterated that point.

“Mr. Barbarotta recently settled his claim for nuisance value and he was unsatisfied with his desired outcome,” he explained. “Mr. Barbarotta is looking to blame others for his business losses in other municipalities. This suit is not only baseless, but it is potentially vexatious and an abuse of process.”

Former Stamford Mayor Michael Pavia commented that the decision to not renew AFB's contract with the city of Stamford was a financial one.

"The decision to not renew AFB's contract with the city of Stamford was exclusively a financial one," said Pavia. "When I was in government, my job was to identify efficiencies that saved taxpayers money.

“After careful thought and deliberation, the city was able to realize substantial savings with this re-organization,” he added. “The proof that this reorganization saved the city of Stamford money is the fact that it has continued in place for two years under my successor."

What’s next?

Ed Scofield, Barbarotta’s lawyer, told The Times Tuesday that his client’s expectation is to go to trial.

“Whenever you file something like this you want to prove your claims,” he said. “The expectation is to have our day in court and let the jury decide.”

Scofield said that Herbst was served the complaint over the weekend and that he was waiting to hear back from the state marshal for the case to be formally processed at the state court level.

“The wording of the complaint won’t change at all — it’s a legal formality,” he explained. “In federal court, the lawsuit is filed and then it’s served; at the state level, it’s the other way around.

“We don’t have a court date yet, but that should be settled in the next couple of days,” he added.

The amount in demand, per the lawsuit, is greater than $15,000 and seeks rewards for money damages, costs of the action, exemplary damages, and other relief that the court may award.

“That’s just another legal formality,” Scofield said. “It’s not an exact number. Obviously, my client is claiming he lost a lot more than that when his contract rights were violated.”