In this file photo, Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador gives a speech at the Idaho GOP election night watch party at the Grove Hotel in Boise, Idaho, on Nov. 8, 2022. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
More than a dozen school districts and after-school and child care providers will have to gather and provide wide-ranging documents and information to Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador by May 17, under a court decision issued Thursday.
Another 19 organizations may have to provide records as well, according to the court decision.
Fourth District Judge Lynn Norton came to that conclusion after hearing arguments and reviewing sworn statements and confidential information in a court case in Ada County. Dozens of organizations sued the Idaho attorney general, saying he overstepped his authority and was placing undue burdens on the organizations as he investigates whether the state improperly distributed some federal grant funds to programs that only serve children under age 5.
The schools and businesses themselves are not suspected of breaking the law, according to the attorney general’s court filings. But Labrador believes they might have evidence of wrongdoing by someone — whom he has yet to publicly identify.
“It was a great decision … a vindication of what this office has been saying since the very beginning,” Labrador told the Idaho Capital Sun on Friday. The judge confirmed that his office has the authority to investigate and to issue evidence-gathering demands in the course of those investigations, he said.
Labrador said he wants to determine whether funds were misspent and whether that was due to “an innocent mistake that has no liability,” or if there was a violation of civil laws meant to protect Idaho consumers and taxpayers, or if there was a violation of criminal statutes “that talk about misuse of public funds,” he told the Sun.
In her decision, Norton said 15 organizations must comply with Labrador’s far-reaching demands for information and records that includes not only documentation of how they applied for the grants but also emails and other correspondence, employees’ charitable contributions, and more. The organizations are:
- 2C Kids Succeed
- Basin School District
- Giraffe Laugh Inc.
- Kendrick School District
- Kendrick School District for Juliaetta Elementary School
- Kuna Early Learning Center
- Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children (AEYC)
- Beth Oppenheimer, executive director of AEYC
- Marsing School District
- Murtaugh School District
- United Way of Idaho Falls & Bonneville County Inc.
- United Way of North Idaho Inc.
- United Way of South Central Idaho Inc.
- United Way of Southeastern Idaho Inc.
- United Way of Treasure Valley Inc.
Most of the organizations — which include small school districts — had argued that complying with Labrador’s demands would take money and staff time they don’t have.
That wasn’t a good enough argument for the judge, who decided they had failed to show that it would be an undue burden to produce all the records and information Labrador wanted.
However, Oppenheimer made a more persuasive case that complying with Labrador’s demands would be too burdensome for theIdaho Association for the Education of Young Children, Norton wrote.
So, the judge decided it was fair to limit the scope of Labrador’s demands when it came to that organization. The association must search its own server and ask employees to search their work computers for the term “Community Partner Grant Program” and provide whatever documents they found. Labrador can add other search terms, but AEYC can object to his requests, Norton wrote.
Oppenheimer told the Idaho Statesman that she thinks “this whole case is unfortunate,” the newspaper reported Thursday. “At the end of the day, we’re just trying to help some kids and families, and it’s unfortunate there are those in this state who make that difficult,” she said, according to the Statesman.
The judge said Labrador failed to show “sufficient evidence” that 19 other organizations — a group that also includes school districts, counseling centers and other entities — must comply with Labrador’s demands. But he can demand that those 19 organizations give him their “grant applications, receipts, invoices, staff payroll information, status reports, and a written record of spending for their grant receipts,” Norton wrote — because the organizations were supposed to keep those records anyway, under the terms of their grant applications.
Law says Idaho AG can demand records from anyone, not just the investigation target
Labrador’s attorney told the court that his office did not believe that any of the organizations “have engaged in any act that was actually unlawful under the Idaho Consumer Protection Act,” Norton wrote.
But, she wrote, Idaho law says the attorney general can demand information and documents from “any person who is believed to have information, documentary material or physical evidence relevant” to a suspected violation.
In other words, the Idaho attorney general can open an investigation if he has a reason to believe someone has broken one of the state’s laws that are meant to curb fraud. As part of that investigation, he can demand information and records not only from the target of the investigation, but from anyone who might have information about the target’s conduct, the judge wrote.
The Idaho Legislature authorized the federal grants to be distributed for programs to help Idaho students recover from pandemic-related learning loss. They were meant to go to programs that serve children ages 5 to 13.
Norton determined that “there is reason for the Attorney General to believe that grant recipients did, are or are about to engage in acts that violate (those laws) if the recipients only serve children four years old or younger or only provide online educational or enrichment activities.”
That doesn’t mean the judge thinks the organizations broke the law; it only means that Labrador “has shown he had reason to believe” that someone knowingly broke the law — that he wasn’t just going off a hunch, she wrote.
The attorney general’s office gave the judge sworn statements that “specifically identify three individuals who were willing to testify under oath that there was a reason to know a violation of the statute.”
But that only applied to some of the organizations and people — not all of them, the judge wrote.
That’s why she decided 19 of the 30-plus organizations who sued over Labrador’s demands are not required to furnish the slew of documents.
Judge says it’s not unconstitutional for AG to demand records
The organizations suing Labrador made a case that his demands would violate their constitutional rights. It would be unreasonable search and seizure of property, they argued.
The judge didn’t agree with that — at least, not entirely.
“First, there is no right of privacy for grant applications, status reports, or receipts that support expenditures,” the judge wrote.
The grant applications that the organizations filled out told them they could be subject to an audit by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and that they must “maintain and produce certain records, including … receipts, invoices, staff payroll information, and a written record of spending,” the judge wrote. They must save those records for five years and be able to produce them within 20 days, under the terms of the grant applications, the judge wrote.
The applications also required the schools and child care providers to file status reports on “the progress of your program’s proposal” with data on the children they served, how they spent the money and specifically how they met the goals of their programs.
So, it wasn’t unconstitutional for the Idaho Attorney General’s Office to demand those records, Norton wrote.
But those weren’t the only records Labrador demanded, she wrote.
He wanted a broad scope of records that included personal emails, social media posts, charitable donation records and even “what any person viewed related to any Community Partner Program grant,” the judge wrote.
Labrador demanded information from time periods “before the statutes implementing the Community Grant Program even became law,” the judge wrote.
Other lawsuits still up in the air
The overall dispute is far from over.
This matter is just one of three lawsuits against Labrador’s office related to his investigation of the federal grants.
Current and former employees of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, including the agency’s director, Dave Jeppesen, have also sued Labrador over the investigative demands.
Labrador’s office demanded that Jeppesen and others provide records and information related to Health and Welfare’s handling of the federal grantee selection process.
The grant investigation has pitted Labrador against his own client — because state law requires the Idaho attorney general to represent state agencies and serve as their attorney.
Jeppesen and other current and former Health and Welfare employees have hired an outside lawyer to represent them in their cases, which oppose Labrador’s demands for information. Those cases are still pending before Norton and another Ada County judge.
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