The eastern Kentucky flood cleanup project is officially done, but debris and lawsuits remain
The company hired to lead the cleanup of the mess left behind the 2022 floods in eastern Kentucky now faces several lawsuits.
The Florida-based company, AshBritt Inc., is accused in lawsuits of allowing subcontractors to steal valuable trees from private property, destroying a family’s home and failing to pay workers.
The company was hired by state officials to lead the cleanup efforts after floods ravaged eastern Kentucky communities in July 2022.
The suits follow a Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting series about the flood recovery process. AshBritt was at the center of the series.
KyCIR found AshBritt’s cleanup exceeded the original cost estimates by over 400%. And the work left many locals unhappy. A KyCIR analysis found only 59% of the debris estimated to be in eastern Kentucky after the flood was actually hauled out.
AshBritt is now facing two lawsuits in Letcher and one in Franklin County. AshBritt’s subcontractors and local law enforcement are also named as defendants in the suits. The cases are still ongoing, but AshBritt has historically avoided legal liability for its work by claiming its status as a government contractor makes the company immune from liability when something goes wrong.
AshBritt’s attorney for all three cases is Mitchel Denham of McBrayer PLLC. The firm is an affiliate of MML & K Government Solutions, a powerful lobbying group AshBritt hired the month after the flooding in 2022. Denham served as a co-chair of Gov. Andy Beshear’s transition team and was previously Beshear’s Assistant Deputy Attorney General. Employees of AshBritt, including AshBritt founder Randy Perkins, have given $30,000 to the Kentucky Democratic Party, federal campaign finance records show.
Denham said that AshBritt does not comment on pending litigation.
Allegations of taking trees
In the latest lawsuit, filed in Letcher County on September 15, Keith Rose accuses AshBritt, a subcontractor, and Thompson Consulting Services, with trespassing and timber theft. The lawsuit also alleges members of the Fleming-Neon Police Department used excessive force and violated Rose’s constitutional rights when they arrested him for trying to stop workers from cutting down his trees.
In September of 2022, the lawsuit explains, subcontractors working for AshBritt showed up to Rose’s property in Letcher County unannounced and, without permission from the Rose family, began cutting down prized black walnut trees along the edge of a creek.
The trees were planted by Rose’s own father-in-law years prior, according to the lawsuit, with the specific intention of preventing erosion.
“They had long provided shade in one of the few open areas with land flat enough for the family children to play and (Rose) expected they would later be there,” the lawsuit reads.
The lawsuit claims black walnut trees can be worth up to $20,000 per tree, while the University of Kentucky’s Department of Forestry and Natural Resources says black walnut logs can fetch as much as $2,452.
Rosepreviously told Louisville Public Media that he did not give workers permission to remove the trees. The debris workers arrived nearly eight weeks after the flood, and the trees had been holding in place, Rose said.
Rose told workers there would be “trouble” if they continued taking the trees, his lawsuit claims that meant he’d call law enforcement. Instead, it was the workers who called the police on Rose. When officers with the Fleming-Neon Police Department did show up, they told Rose they “were there to make sure nobody interfered or got in the way of the contractors cutting down whatever trees they saw fit to cut,” according to the lawsuit.
Rose claims he did not threaten the officers, but when he turned around, officers tased him from behind then “jumped on his back.”
The officers arrested Rose and took him to a hospital in nearby Whitesburg. There, an X-ray showed Rose’s ribs and bones in his hand had been broken in the scuffle with officers. He was taken to the Letcher County jail where, the lawsuit claims, he needed help from other people held at the jail to use the bathroom because of his injuries.
The day after his arrest, Rose was placed on home incarceration for 12 days at his own expense.
Rose is facing criminal charges from the incident including terroristic threatening, fleeing from police and resisting arrest. Fleming-Neon Chief of Police Thomas Bormes, who Rose names as a defendant in his lawsuit, could not be reached for comment.
Rose is seeking punitive damages to be determined during a trial.
In both his civil case and the criminal charges, Rose is represented by J. Tyler Ward of Ward and Associates, a law firm with offices in Lexington and Whitesburg, did not respond to requests for comment.
Allegations of taking a home
Another lawsuit AshBritt faces accuses the company of overseeing the unlawful taking of a home.
Don and Malissa Young filed the lawsuit on August 18 in Letcher County. They allege AshBritt subcontractors demolished their home without permission and over the couple’s objections.
The Youngs, who were featured in the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting’s radio documentary “Dirty Business”, survived the flood and were surprised weeks later when cleanup crews tore down their home along with priceless possessions they believed could be salvaged.
The lawsuit accuses AshBritt, subcontractor Next Endeavor and Thompson Consulting Services with trespassing, negligence and illegal conversion — which means taking property, sometimes legally, and using it to make a profit.
The suit claims the companies “intentionally, recklessly, willfully” trespassed onto the Young’s property and tore down their mobile home where they’d lived for 27 years.
The lawsuit requests damages for the mental pain and suffering they faced losing their home.
The Youngs are represented by James Hamilton of Hamilton and Stevens, a Pikeville based law firm. He did not immediately return a request for comment.
AshBritt’s attorney, Denham, filed a response to the Young’s lawsuit on Sept. 26. In that filing, he claims the alleged injuries and damages were caused by the Young’s own negligence or the negligence of third parties that the company is not responsible for. He also argues that, as a government contractor, the company benefits from sovereign immunity that protects it from civil liability.
The company also claims that the damages to the Young’s property was caused by the flood, “an act of God,” according to the court documents.
Officials with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet said something similar when the Young’s filed a complaint with the state’s Board of Claims. That complaint is still under review, but Don Young dismissed that argument in an interview with KyCIR last spring.
“They said it was an act of God,” Young said. “God didn't drop an excavator in my yard. Yes, he brought the water, but my home could have been put back on the foundation. And they just came in with no warning and tore it down and hauled it off.”
Allegations of not paying workers
The third suit, filed in May in Franklin County, alleges AshBritt failed to pay a subcontractor, which led to other subcontractors not getting paid.
Florida-based Blaze Tree Services claims in the suit it didn’t get paid for work because AshBritt didn’t pay another subcontractor, NEV, LLC.
KyCIR previously reported on the lawsuit in May 2023. Blaze Tree accuses AshBritt of breach of contract. Blaze Tree is represented by Tara Lopez of Buckley, Seacord and Justice PA in Florida, who has not responded to a request for comment.
AshBritt’s attorney filed a response to the lawsuit in late September, the same day he filed an answer to the suit filed by the Youngs — and again claimed AshBritt’s status as a government contractor makes the company immune from liability and that a third party caused the alleged harm. AshBritt further argues that Blaze Tree is not entitled to any more compensation because it failed to complete services consistent with industry standards.