February 20, 2024

Idaho’s health department wants the state’s attorney general to pay $119,000 in legal bills

Earlier this year, top officials at the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare hired outside lawyers to sue Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador.

They sought to end his sweeping civil subpoenas for information about how a scrutinized child support program was being administered.

Now that these warrants for information — formally called civil investigative demands — are off the table, Idaho Health Department officials want the Idaho Attorney General’s office to pay $119,000 in legal bills they collected to fight the demands.

Labrador is required by Idaho law to represent the state health department and other government agencies. But since the former congressman took over as the state’s top attorney in January, he has been involved in high-profile legal clashes with some of the state’s largest agencies — including in this case the Department of Health and the State Board of Education. against which his office filed a lawsuit alleged violations of the open meetings law with the attempted takeover of the University of Phoenix by the University of Idaho.

State health department officials “had to hire an attorney as a direct result of Attorney General Labrador’s conflict of interest,” according to a statement Tuesday submitting a petition to the court for attorney’s fees.

The lawsuit, and a similar one filed by a former department official who worked on the grant program, was recently dismissed. That’s after special prosecutor Christopher Boyd withdrew the demands.

How we got here: Civil summonses are being dropped. But the investigation is ongoing.

An audit that found deficiencies in how the Department of Health and Human Services administered the grants answered questions the claims sought to answer, Boyd told attorneys in a letter to the ex-department official. He said the requirements were no longer necessary. But the investigation is still ongoing, he writes in the letter. He said he would seek to appoint a special investigating judge to the case.

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Boyd’s letter to the ex-official’s attorney was posted in publicly available court documents. But his letter to officials at the Ministry of Health and Human Services has not been published. Agency spokesman Greg Stahl declined to share a copy with the Idaho Capital Sun, citing attorney-client privilege. The letter will not be made public, Stahl said.

Boyd was appointed as special prosecutor in the case in August, after a judge ruled out Labrador from pursuing civil investigative demands. The judge’s order said Labrador had a conflict of interest in the case, citing previous legal guidance from the attorney general’s office to the Department of Health and Human Services in late 2022 and early 2023, which stated that the distribution of the grant funds by the agency was legally responsible.

But the Public Prosecution Service withdrew those recommendations in March, saying they were legally incorrect.

The author of these opinions, a now-fired deputy attorney general, disagreed that they were inaccurate, but withdrew their opinions. That lawyer recently sued the Idaho Attorney General’s office for retaliation.

The Idaho Attorney General’s Office, in a statement through spokesman Dan Estes, pushed back on the request for attorney fees. The statement said the lawsuit was dismissed without naming a party that won the case and that Boyd waived demands “to proceed with a civil and criminal investigation based on the findings of the legislative audit.”

“The Department of Health and Human Services has spent millions of taxpayer dollars in ways not authorized by law,” the AG’s office said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that they continue to waste taxpayers’ money and refuse to take responsibility for their actions.”

Trudy Hanson Fouser, a Boise attorney representing Idaho Department of Health and Welfare officials in their lawsuit against Labrador, is also representing the Idaho State Board of Education in another interagency legal battle. Labrador sued the State Board of Education earlier this year, alleging the board violated the Open Meetings Law by approving the University of Idaho’s planned acquisition of the University of Phoenix.

Hanson Fouser racked up $81,000 in legal bills in that case, with both sides arguing over who pays the bill, Idaho Education News reported.


Which subsidies are being investigated?

Labrador is investigating tens of millions in child care subsidies distributed by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. The Idaho Legislature appropriated $36 million for health and human services in both 2021 and 2022 through legislation that required the funds to be used for grants to community partners addressing the pandemic’s impacts on school-age children, including learning loss.

The bills specified that the grants were to be used for school-age children ages 5 to 13, “as permitted by federal guidelines.” The bills, which placed limits on how much organizations could receive, required funds to be used only for personal activities and “for providing behavioral health supports to meet the needs of students.”

An audit released this year found it that a lack of internal controls over how the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare administered federal child care subsidies led to money being spent on ineligible purposes and ineligible groups, according to the audit. The Ministry of Health and Welfare did not agree with all the audit findings.

The department declined to submit a corrective action plan following the audit earlier this month. Rep. Wendy Horman, co-chair of the Legislature’s powerful Budget Committee, told lawmakers recently that the department’s response “calls into question our ability to approve funds for the agency.”

The civilian investigative demands, addressed to top officials, asked for records about the program and information about former and current state health department employees who worked on the program, including about charities they work for, volunteer for or donate to.

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