Idaho AG can’t pursue civil demands in child care grant case due to conflict, judge rules

Ada County District Court judge: Raúl Labrador can still oversee investigation, but he must appoint independent special prosecutor

By: - August 10, 2023 5:38 pm
Idaho Attorney General candidate Raúl Labrador

In this file photo, Raúl Labrador speaks to attendees of the Idaho Republican Party primary election celebration on May 17, 2022. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

An Idaho judge has barred Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador from pursuing demands for information in civil court from three senior staffers in the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, unless he appoints an independent special prosecutor. 

Labrador previously told the Idaho Capital Sun he wants to investigate how the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare administered $36 million of child care grants authorized last year by the Idaho Legislature.

The Legislature authorized the federal grants through the state’s Community Partner Grant Program 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.

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The ruling, released Thursday by Ada County District Court Judge Lynn Norton, says Labrador can still oversee the investigation into the grants, but the ruling is stayed for 21 days to let Labrador consider appointing a special prosecutor to litigate the case.

“The specific conflict between the Attorney General’s Office and the IDHW related to the administration of the grant program precludes the Attorney General or any Deputy Attorney General from pursuing the civil investigative demands … unless the Attorney General appoints an independent special prosecutor,” Norton wrote. 

The Attorney General’s Office, in an emailed statement Friday to the Idaho Capital Sun, said Labrador “is reviewing his options for proceeding with the investigation.”

“Judge Norton previously determined that the Attorney General has statutory authority to conduct this investigation and acknowledged our reasons to believe the law was violated,” the office’s statement said. “This is consistent with the pending legislative audit, authorized by the Governor, reviewing the Department of Health and Welfare’s administration and expenditure of $14 million of public funds under the Community Partner Grant Program.”

Idaho Department of Health and Welfare sued Labrador over investigative demands in March

Labrador in March demanded that three Idaho Department of Health and Welfare staffers — Director Dave Jeppesen, Deputy Director Jennifer Palagi and Division Administrator Shane Leach — hand over all documents related to the Community Partner Grant Program, along with the names and contact information of all department employees, current and former, who worked on the program in any capacity. 

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare in March sued Labrador in response. 

Labrador, by Idaho law, is required to represent the state health department and other state agencies. But since the former congressman took over as the state’s top attorney in January, he has engaged in high profile legal clashes with some of the state’s largest agencies — including IDHW in this case and the State Board of Education, which his office sued alleging open meeting law violations with the University of Idaho’s attempted acquisition of University of Phoenix. 

The ruling revolved around the Attorney General’s office, under Labrador, providing memos to IDHW saying the grants program operation “does not appear to violate federal and state guidelines.

The judge said the attorney general’s office, though clearly not representing IDHW on this issue, “took on an attorney-client relationship and duties of legal representation to IDHW and its officials when it issued the Legal Memoranda.”

“The Attorney General cannot now seek to investigate IDHW and its employees’ actions since the IDHW request for a legal opinion made the IDHW a client of the Attorney General on this same case,” Norton wrote.

Six of eight deputy attorney generals who were central to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare have quit or been fired by Labrador by this spring, the Idaho Capital Sun previously reported

“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,” Jeppesen previously told the Idaho Capital Sun.

A court hearing will be held Sept. 5 on a motion to stay the lawsuit, which would prevent additional hearings in the case until that issue has been addressed. Labrador requested a stay on the case in July because an audit of the grants is slated for release in the upcoming months.

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