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.
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