Judge orders Ada County to pay whistleblower’s $664,527 legal bill

Ada County Commissioners Dave Case, left, and Jim Tibbs at their swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 14, 2013, at the Ada County Courthouse.
Ada County Commissioners Dave Case, left, and Jim Tibbs at their swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 14, 2013, at the Ada County Courthouse. kjones@idahostatesman.com

UPDATE: Ada County has spent $325,700 to date defending the lawsuit. Article has been updated to reflect this.

Ada County’s tab for a whistleblower lawsuit it lost is now up to about $2.7 million — money taxpayers are on the hook for.

Rich Wright, a former TV journalist and Boise police spokesman, was Ada County’s spokesman from 2006 to 2008, when he was promoted to lead the Department of Administration. He was fired Jan. 15, 2013, the day after newly elected commissioners Dave Case and Jim Tibbs were sworn into office.

The next month, Wright filed a $1.5 million lawsuit, claiming he was fired in part for ordering an investigation into allegations that a manager with the commissioners office was harassing employees. He said commissioners retaliated because the employee, who ultimately resigned, was a friend of former Ada County Commissioner Vern Bisterfeldt’s and took part in Case’s and Tibbs’ 2012 election campaigns.

A district judge in Boise granted the county’s request for summary judgment and dismissed the case in January 2015, saying Wright’s claims did not fall under the Whistleblower Act. Wright appealed. Last July, the Idaho Supreme Court upheld part of the ruling but sent the case back to trial court on other parts.

On March 14, an Ada County jury returned a unanimous verdict in favor of Wright. The jury awarded him $1.6 million on his whistleblower claim and $100,000 on his claim of negligent infliction of emotional stress.

After the verdict, the county asked District Judge Kathryn A. Stricklen to issue her own verdict or order a new trial. The county also asked the court not to make it pay Wright’s legal fees. Stricklen denied all of the county’s motions Wednesday.

“(I)t is quite clear that both Case and Tibbs were acting together, and that their conduct was highly unusual,” Stricklen wrote. “Not one witness criticized Wright’s performance. The Court does believe that the verdict for Wright was in accord with the clear weight of the totality of the evidence.”

Stricklin also said awarding legal fees is “appropriate” and “reasonable.” The fees totaled $664,527.

According to the county, it has spent $325,700 to date defending the lawsuit.

Ada County is self-insured, so no insurance company will cover the cost of the lawsuit. The county’s insurance fund is funded by property taxes and fees the county collects.

“Like the jury in my case, Judge Stricklen got it right,” Wright told the Statesman. “I would hope the commissioners would stop wasting taxpayer dollars defending their wrongful actions when what they did to me has already been determined to have been in violation of Idaho law.

“They weren’t good stewards of the public’s trust when they retaliated against me and fired me for doing my job, and they haven’t been good stewards of taxpayers dollars by wasting public funds to defend their indefensible actions.”

The county said on Thursday that it will not appeal the judge’s order, although Case and Tibbs again denied that they sought to retaliate against Wright.

“We have the utmost respect for the judicial process and thank those citizens who performed their civic duty and served as jurors,” they said in a statement. “We do, however, respectfully disagree with the decision in this case. We believe there was never any act of intentional retaliation against Mr. Wright. Even though we disagree with the ruling, the court has spoken, and we will honor that decision.”

Cynthia Sewell: 208-377-6428, @CynthiaSewell

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