State Politics

Who polices the Idaho State Police? Most accusations have to be resolved in court

When the Idaho State Police are accused of bias, wrongdoing, cover-ups or favoritism, whose job is it to ferret out the truth?

ISP does not have an oversight board — for instance, the Correction Board, the Land Board or the Fish and Game Commission. The governor appoints the director and deputy director; they answer to him. The governor has the authority to call for investigations.

The Idaho Attorney General’s Office says it does not have authority to conduct an investigation, unless asked to do so by a county sheriff or prosecutor.

The Legislature does have the ability to call for an investigation, but it’s rarely used, said House Speaker Scott Bedke. “It certainly has not happened while I have been the speaker,” he said.

Initiating such an inquiry is not an easy task, especially when the Legislature is not in session. “It takes formal action,” Bedke said. It’s more common for the Legislature to ask its auditing arm to look into problems at state agencies, he said.

Neither Gov. Butch Otter nor the Idaho State Police are commenting after a May 31 Statesman story detailing three lawsuits filed against ISP alleging cover-up and retaliation in an investigation into a fatal car crash involving a Payette County sheriff’s deputy. ISP employees say they were ordered to shade a report in favor of protecting the deputy.

Although he has declined to talk to the Statesman, Col. Ralph Powell did send ISP staff a June 1 email, which was forwarded to the Statesman by an employee. Powell said the correct place for these accusations to be vetted is in court.

Commenting on pending litigation would be “inappropriate,” Powell told employees, saying the allegations were strictly that — accusations in a civil lawsuit against him and the department.

“As we all know, ‘anyone can sue for anything,’ ” he wrote. “It’s what the court or jury finds as factual that deserves the attention.”

Powell added: “The author of the article seemed to present allegations as fact. We, nonetheless, recognize the rights of our employees and past employees to proceed through the process of litigation and ISP will continue to refrain from comment on these allegations until the process is complete.”

Leroy: inquiry needed

But sometimes, waiting for the courts to act is not enough, said former attorney general and prosecuting attorney David Leroy, especially when the allegations concern top brass ordering changes in fact-based investigations.

“There should be an executive branch inquiry by the governor or by the attorney general as to whether some inappropriate politics or policy interfered with the administration of justice,” Leroy said. “Perhaps that would require a special prosecutor-type inquiry. But I would prefer to see that undertaken immediately rather than just simply await later judgments of the courts, which may establish tardy or incomplete or even inconsistent results.”

Leroy said the allegation that ISP leaders ordered an investigator to change a report are serious.

“We depend on those in court to be accurate, to be reliable and to be unpolitical,” he said. “To the extent that there are grave concerns about ‘command influence,’ as they call it in the military, related to field findings, that is a very significant concern for prosecutors and defense lawyers and citizens of the state.”

Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, is the top Democrat in the Idaho House. Last session he proposed creating an independent state office that would investigate accusations against state officials and give whistleblowers a place to report wrongdoing without fear of reprisal. That bill died without action, but Rusche said he plans to reintroduce it next session.

Without an independent oversight board or other entity, ISP and many state employees have nowhere else to go but to the courts.

“If there is malfeasance, fraud or even if they identify significant correctable errors, where can they go to get a fair hearing? To their boss? To the governor’s office?” Rusche said.

He said a proposed inspector general would receive and investigate complaints and, if criminal activity is suspected, the case could be referred to police or prosecutors. If the finding is not of a criminal nature but a management or leadership issue, the agency director or governor needs to know.

“It should not require a lawsuit to handle these situations,” said Rusche.

The U.S. Department of Justice and/or the FBI can conduct an investigation into a law enforcement agency if federal laws might have been broken. But those cases are “few and far between and rely on clear evidence of criminal intent,” said Wendy Olson, U.S. attorney for Idaho.

Her office has worked with ISP on a number of cases over the years. “(We) are confident that, based on what we know, there are no issues with those cases,” Olson told the Statesman.

Of the allegations of retaliation and cover-up, Olson said: “I cannot comment on whether we have been asked to investigate anything.”

Olson also would not comment on whether the allegations against ISP have affected or delayed any pending or future federal cases.

“We have worked a number of successful investigations with individual ISP officers and I anticipate that we will continue to do that where appropriate,” she said.