Rehberg drops politically fraught lawsuit in Montana

Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) has dropped a lawsuit against local firefighters that was proving a distraction for his campaign against Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.).

Rehberg and his wife had sued the Billings, Mont., fire department, arguing that it mishandled a wildfire on Rehberg's proprerty that led to 1,200 acres burning. Democrats have characterized the lawsuit as evidence that Rehberg is selfish and out of touch.

The Republican has been trying to find a way out of the case for a while, offering last month to reach a non-monetary settlement with the city of Billings if it agreed to adopt new wildfire standards. The city refused that offer earlier on Thursday, and criticized Rehberg in the process.

"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," wrote a Billings city attorney to Rehberg's lawyer in a note made public on Thursday. "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."

Rehberg's attorney told The Associated Press late on Thursday that he'd been asked by his client to drop the case because it 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," Rehberg attorney Cliff Edwards wrote to the AP.

Democrats are likely to try to keep the issue in the headlines and use this as an attack against Rehberg in the campaign, seeking to portray him as "out of touch and self-serving," as Tester campaign manager Preston Elliot told the AP. But by dropping the case, Rehberg avoids making this an even bigger distraction for his campaign.