New Idaho law will help attorney general address corruption claims

The mandate has added staffers to a unit responsible for investigating alleged misconduct by officials.

cmsewell@idahostatesman.comMay 18, 2014 

  • AUDITORS TRY TO TRIM MULTIMILLION-DOLLAR BILL FOR OUTSIDE LEGAL WORK

    How much is Idaho spending on private lawyers to do state legal work?

    About $10 million annually.

    The attorney general and some lawmakers say that's way too much.

    A state study now underway will find out how much the state can save. The AG says it will be millions.

    Lawmakers directed the Office of Performance Evaluations to investigate the Idaho attorney general's office workload and the cost of contracting with private lawyers when the state doesn't have enough in-house staff for cases.

    "We welcome that," said Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. "We will sit down and have an opportunity to go through the facts. The facts are going to show exactly what we have been saying."

    The average cost for one state attorney is less than $60 an hour, Wasden said. Costs for private lawyers can be as high as $250 to $450 an hour. If he had more on-staff lawyers, Wasden said, his office could handle some of the workload now going to private firms.

    "The second you go out the door to outside counsel, it is a minimum of $125 an hour," Wasden said. "Just the fact you step outside the door you are vastly increasing the cost."

    From 2006 through 2013, the state paid about $80 million for outside legal services, including for attorneys, consultants, hearing officers and other fees, according to records from the state controller.

    Not all of that went to lawyers, and not all of that could have been handled by state attorneys. And Wasden acknowledges that under certain situations, outside counsel is needed for expertise or specialized resources, or if the AG's office has a conflict.

    But two recent cases - Pam Lowe's wrongful firing case against the Idaho Transportation Department and Syringa Networks' lawsuit against the Department of Administration over the state's broadband contract - illustrate how the outside legal bills can add up.

    In March 2010, the state contracted with Holland & Hart to handle the Lowe lawsuit. The case ended in August 2012, when the state settled with Lowe for $750,000. The state paid Holland & Hart more than $630,000 over 2 1/2 years to defend the case.

    Holland & Hart receives the most state business of any outside law firm. From 2006 through 2013, the state paid Holland & Hart $7.4 million, or about $570,000 annually. The bulk of that legal work - $6.3 million - is for the transportation department.

    In 2010, the state contracted with Hawley Troxell Ennis & Hawley to defend the Syringa lawsuit, which continues. The state had paid the firm $687,890 from 2010 through May 7.

    Office of Performance Evaluations Director Rakesh Mohan said he expects to present the report on outside legal expenses to lawmakers in December or early January. His office is meeting this week with the AG's office, ITD and other state agencies to outline the evaluation.

    The report will seek to answer three questions, Mohan said:

    • How much are state agencies spending on outside counsel?

    • Can some of this work be done by attorney general staffers?

    • Does the AG have the capacity to take on additional workload?

    Cynthia Sewell

  • CYNTHIA SEWELL

    Cynthia, an Idaho Statesman reporter since 2005, has been named reporter of the year by the Idaho Press Club, largely for her watchdog reporting. She covers local government, growth and transportation in the Treasure Valley area. She's a graduate of Capital High School and the University of Oregon. Her family has lived in Idaho since the late 1800s.

In 2005, the Idaho attorney general's Special Prosecutions Unit accepted 144 of 161 requests to investigate cases of public corruption or capital crimes.

In the past three years, the unit has been averaging just 30 cases a year.

Idaho legislators took notice.

"We have had legislators complain about our failure to prosecute people and we have had to tell them, 'We don't have the people,' " said Paul Panther, chief of the criminal law division.

Legislators boosted the agency's budget by $617,000 this year, allowing the unit to hire another lawyer and two investigators as of July.

Recession-driven budget cuts had reduced the unit's staff by half, to two prosecutors and two investigators. And Attorney General Lawrence Wasden told prosecutors and local governments that his staff was tapped out.

"We actually had to meet with them and say, 'Stop asking us. We do not have the resources. We cannot help you,' " Wasden said. "We had to turn them away."

But the workload might not ease with the additional staffers. Beginning July 1, the SPU must investigate any complaint it receives against an elected county official accused of violating state law. Existing law allows only a county prosecutor or board of commissioners to ask the AG to investigate a case, and the AG can choose whether or not to take it.

"Yes, we will have more resources on July 1, but we also will now have statutorily required investigations we are supposed to do," said Wasden.

Ada County citizens could have benefited from this several years ago.

When critics couldn't get the Ada County prosecutor to look into the commissioners' dealings with Dynamis for a proposed trash-to-electricity plant at the landfill, they took the county to court. After nearly two years of public pressure, Ada County Prosecutor Greg Bower appointed a special prosecutor to look into the matter. The inquiry concluded that the commissioners' actions were troubling, but didn't rise to the level of criminal misconduct.

Had the new law been in effect, the citizens could have taken their complaint directly to the attorney general's unit, which would have had to look into the matter.

Another example would be Jefferson County Sheriff Blair Olsen's alleged misuse of public funds. When initially asked to conduct an inquiry, the AG's office did not have the resources. Resources later became available and the office began an investigation.

NEW LAW

Three new staffers should be sufficient "to handle the increased workload attributable to that bill," Wasden said, noting that the Special Prosecutions Unit still will have one less attorney than in 2008.

The new law also gives the office a needed tool for addressing public misconduct and corruption.

"In the past, there's been many times people have called and said, 'Can you do something about this? This is going on,' " said Panther. "We now have the authority to go in and investigate when we get complaints against elected officials."

Under the law, when the AG receives a complaint about an elected official or prosecutor, it will then conduct a preliminary investigation. The office will determine whether the allegation is unfounded or warrants further inquiry.

"If an investigation into a county official is warranted, then the case goes back to the county prosecutor, who is required to appoint a special prosecutor," said Wasden. "If the target ... is a county prosecutor, however, then the AG's office will be the special prosecutor."

Wasden and his staff are working out the logistics for how complaints can be made to his office.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, aims to eliminate conflicts of interest for county prosecutors, who represent elected officials in their official day-to-day duties and prosecute misconduct by those same officials.

Twin Falls prosecuting attorney Grant Loebs said the new law standardizes what many counties do already.

"I don't believe there is a systemic problem," he said. "I believe there are very few isolated incidents, which by and large have been handled properly. But they have been handled properly on an ad-hoc individual basis."

Cynthia Sewell: 377-6428, Twitter: @CynthiaSewell

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