Lawyer exodus from AG’s office ‘has compromised’ Idaho health and welfare, says director

Six of eight deputy attorneys general who were central to Idaho Department of Health and Welfare administration have left since March

By: - May 31, 2023 4:30 am
Idaho Inauguration

Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador is sworn in on the steps of the State Capitol building on January 6, 2023. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Six of the eight top attorneys assigned to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare have quit or been fired by Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador since March.

Some of those lawyers made a loud exit, pointing to Labrador’s increasingly complicated relationship with a department he is legally required to represent.

Labrador promised in his campaign for attorney general to overhaul how the office operates. Since taking office, he has created a new position in the office’s executive team and pledged to change how the office provides legal advice.

He also turned a critical eye to Health and Welfare. He opened an investigation into what he believes may have been illegal activity surrounding pandemic-era grants to child care providers; sought records to investigate child protection cases; and his office has fought attempts by Health and Welfare officials to block Labrador’s investigative demands.

The head of Health and Welfare — Idaho’s largest state agency — said the departures have already caused problems for the department and the people it serves.

“The loss of so much specialized legal knowledge, expertise, experience and history at one time has compromised the department’s ability to carry out the laws and policies that the legislature has enacted via statute,” wrote Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen in an email responding to questions from the Idaho Capital Sun. “This will create a direct negative impact to the Idaho families, vulnerable adults and children that the legislature has directed the department to serve.”

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Labrador argues that the departures are an isolated purge of personnel who weren’t the best candidates for those jobs under his administration.

“What should be telling is that, in every other division, we haven’t had this issue, so that tells you that the problem is not with that office or with my leadership, but it’s with the culture in that division,” Labrador said in an interview. “In fact, many of these divisions are very excited about the changes that are happening.”

When he took office in January, Labrador said employees would need to submit letters of continuing interest if they wanted to continue working for the office under his administration. He also assembled an advisory committee to evaluate the agency. Members of that committee, including two of Labrador’s newly hired executive team, would interview every employee who wanted to stay with the AG’s office.

“These interviews are designed to ensure that each employee is the right person, with the right experience, in the right job for the people of Idaho,” an announcement from Labrador’s office said.

Health and Welfare director: ‘It will take years’ to replace DAGs’ institutional knowledge

Jeppesen said in emailed answers to questions from the Idaho Capital Sun that the exodus of attorneys from Labrador’s office has caused “delayed work and less robust legal analysis” for Health and Welfare.

The loss of attorneys who handled complex lawsuits against Health and Welfare “will make it more difficult to adequately defend the state and the interests of the people the state serves,” he wrote.

Labrador told the Idaho Capital Sun in interviews last week that he believes the turnover will bring improvements.

Labrador said he isn’t leaving the positions open as attorneys leave.

“Several have been filled,” he said in an interview Friday.

Jeppesen said Labrador has filled only two of the six attorney jobs so far. Both are new to Health and Welfare “and do not come with knowledge or expertise in the many complex and nuanced services that the Idaho Legislature requires via statute for the department to provide to Idaho families, vulnerable adults and children,” Jeppesen wrote.

The department is a large, complex agency with many operational and legal nuances. It will take years for the level of specialized legal knowledge to be rebuilt.

– Idaho Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen

The department immediately hired two of the former DAGs after their release from the AG’s office.

Labrador said in an interview last week that he finds it suspicious that those DAGs could seamlessly transition from his office to the department — if they previously stayed within the scope of their jobs as DAGs instead of veering into policy work.

A spokesperson for Health and Welfare said the former DAGs now have different roles at the department, such as updating human resources policies and working on public health accreditation projects.

The rift between Health and Welfare and Labrador’s office

The recent exodus of DAGs who were assigned to Health and Welfare administration began in March, after Labrador launched an inquiry into the department’s handling of federal grants to schools and child care providers — specifically, investigating whether funds went to organizations that serve preschool-aged children.

That inquiry has led to litigation between Labrador’s office — which employs Health and Welfare’s DAGs — and Health and Welfare, which those DAGs are legally obligated to represent.

Daphne Huang was the lead DAG assigned to child care programs for Health and Welfare at the time.

Huang sent an email in late March to a supervisor, “memorializing our conversation,” that described an increasingly tense relationship between Huang and other agency attorneys and their boss, Labrador.

“It saddens and deeply troubles me how (Labrador and two executive hires he made upon taking office) have conducted themselves in managing this Office of great staff doing excellent work with agencies that also do excellent work,” Huang wrote. “I don’t think (Labrador’s executive team) is concerned with our ethical responsibilities under professional rules of conduct to which we are all bound. They instead appear intent on dismantling government, and doing so without regard for the people who believe in public service who fall in their wake. They have drawn the Office into adversity with its clients based on anti-government pursuits irrespective of how the law applies to the facts.”

She wrote that Labrador and his executive team had “created many ethical conflicts, which – in my decades-long career working for three other Attorneys General – I have not encountered, and in which I cannot in good conscience participate.”

One of the members of Labrador’s executive team, David Dewhirst — his chief deputy attorney general, who has since left to work for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — responded to Huang’s email by asking her to resign that day, March 29.

For one thing, he wrote to Huang, she had issued a legal memo Labrador disagreed with, regarding those federal grants for schools and child care providers.

He said her legal memo showed “either a profound lack of sound attorney judgment or a willingness to unquestionably provide post hoc legal cover for IDHW’s potentially unlawful activities. That opinion, like your email … appears to be an attempt to paper the record after the fact.”

Huang responded to him, saying the legal memo was a routine analysis based on state statute and the statute’s reference to federal guidelines.

“You disagreed with my memo and that is your prerogative,” she wrote to Dewhirst. “But I stand by my statement to you that it was wholly unclear to me that a memo about providing grants to serve children, and its consistency with the 2022 legislature’s appropriations bill, needed to be vetted through (Labrador’s executive team).”

She refused to resign, saying that it was not her choice to leave the AG’s office.

Another deputy attorney general, Madison Miles, left the job this month, along with three more DAGs who were assigned to the department.

“To say that this is bittersweet is an understatement,” Miles wrote in a May 12 farewell email to Health and Welfare’s top administrators.

“I honestly never thought this day would come, and I’m saddened and quite a bit angered that it has. I truly wish things were different, for all of us,” she wrote.

Labrador: Replacing the attorneys ‘makes government more efficient’

Several of Idaho’s former lead attorneys retired or left their jobs following the 2022 Republican primary election, in which Labrador unseated longtime Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.

The departures included the lead attorney in consumer protection and the primary attorney to represent Idaho in abortion cases before the Idaho Supreme Court.

The recent departures have been more concentrated to Health and Welfare.

The Sun asked Labrador if the exodus could be a sign of low morale, or a result of his inquiry into whether the department broke the law under the guidance of his DAGs.

He said he doesn’t think it “has anything to do with that.”

“I think it makes government more efficient to get rid of people who do not understand what the proper role of government is, and that don’t understand there are limits to what unelected bureaucrats can do in their offices — and to replace them with lawyers (who understand that role),” Labrador said. “I think the only people that benefit from that are the people of Idaho.”

What’s the relationship between Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and Idaho Attorney General?

The Idaho attorney general’s office functions as the law firm for state government, according to Idaho law. The AG’s office assigns some of its legal staff to agencies to guarantee that every piece of state government has representation — from Idaho’s largest agency, the Department of Health and Welfare, to smaller agencies like the Department of Insurance.

The deputy attorneys general have expertise in certain areas of the law, so that they can answer legal questions that arise in day-to-day state government work and can argue the state’s position in court.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is a frequent target for litigation, as it oversees programs that are heavily regulated and touch an estimated one-third to one-half of all Idahoans. Many of those Idahoans are vulnerable and therefore have more legal protections.

For example, the department is still working through a massive settlement from a lawsuit filed in 1980 over Idaho’s child and adolescent behavioral health care services — while, at the same time, just starting its defense in a federal lawsuit over whether the department discriminated against transgender Idahoans on Medicaid.


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Audrey Dutton
Audrey Dutton

Audrey Dutton was a senior investigative reporter with the Idaho Capital Sun after 10 years at the Idaho Statesman. Her favorite topics to cover included health care, business, consumer protection issues and white collar crime. Before coming home to Idaho, Dutton worked as a journalist in Minnesota, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Dutton's work has earned dozens of state, regional and national awards for investigative reporting, health care and business reporting, data visualization and more.