Taxpayers shouldn’t be punished for Idaho lieutenant governor’s (really bad) decision

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·3 min read
Darin Oswald/doswald@idahostatesman.com
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After nearly two months of refusing to turn over a public record last year, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin sought out the advice of the Idaho Attorney General’s Office.

The Idaho Press Club, of which I am a board member and chairman of the Press Club’s First Amendment Committee, was threatening to sue the lieutenant governor if she didn’t release the Google spreadsheet that contained public feedback to the lieutenant governor’s task force trying to find indoctrination in the education system.

One of the original public records requests, from Audrey Dutton of the Idaho Capital Sun, came in on April 21, 2021. Other reporters from Idaho Ed News and the Idaho Statesman also sought the same records. For two months, the lieutenant governor dragged her feet, declined to release the full document and didn’t comply with Idaho’s public records law.

Meanwhile, the task force was continuing to meet and work on potential legislation based, at least in part, on the feedback they were receiving from the public. The lieutenant governor was keeping that feedback a secret.

In cases like this, when a public official refuses to follow the law, the only recourse the public has is to file a lawsuit. The Idaho Press Club informed the lieutenant governor that’s what we intended to do if she continued to violate the law.

That’s when she got some good legal advice from Deputy Attorney General Rachel Kolts on June 7.

It’s not what she wanted to hear.

“We recommend that your office review the full spreadsheet for any redactions pursuant to (state code identifying a minor) and produce the full spreadsheet to Ms. Dutton as soon as possible and no later than the end of the business day tomorrow,” Kolts wrote. “If you disagree with our advice, you may wish to seek a second opinion from other counsel.”

McGeachin had a choice at that moment: follow the Attorney General’s Office’s advice or continue to fight it with outside counsel.

McGeachin chose the latter.

It was a bad decision. A really bad decision.

With Sandpoint lawyer Colton Boyles as her attorney, McGeachin lost badly, with a strongly worded decision that chastised McGeachin and shredded Boyles’ deeply flawed legal arguments. McGeachin was ordered to turn over the records and pay the Idaho Press Club’s attorney fees, court costs and a $750 civil fine.

Now, McGeachin is asking the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee to add money to her budget to pay the court-ordered legal bill of nearly $29,000.

The lieutenant governor’s total budget is $183,100. McGeachin has said she may have to cut staff if the legal fees are pulled from that budget, according to the Associated Press.

So be it.

The taxpayers should be held harmless for McGeachin’s bad decision to ignore the (taxpayer-funded) advice of the Attorney General’s Office.

Had she heeded that advice on June 7, there would have been no lawsuit, no delay, no court costs, no civil fine and no attorney fees.

“This entire matter is an excellent demonstration of why government should seek legal counsel that it needs to hear instead of what it wants to hear,” Attorney General spokesman Scott Graf said in October.

Taxpayers will still be paying for her mistake, as the lieutenant governor’s budget is paid by taxpayers. But we shouldn’t give her more money on top of what she’s already getting.

McGeachin and any public official, for that matter, should know that decisions like this have consequences. If taxpayers simply hand over another $29,000 to bail her out, there is little incentive for her to do the right thing in the future.

Making her pay out of her own budget provides a disincentive to make risky and faulty decisions like this.

Members of the Legislature’s budget-setting committee should turn down this request.