Idaho’s new Attorney General seems to envision himself as a crusading law enforcement officer, cleaning up the government with a shoot-first-ask-questions-later style. In actuality, his brash, guns-blazing behavior is contrary to his role as the lawyer required by law to represent state agencies. It is also violative of lawyer conflict-of-interest rules and will likely prove costly to the State of Idaho.
Labrador’s latest gambit was suing the State Board of Education (Board) for approving a University of Idaho plan to acquire an on-line school. He brought suit against the Board, claiming it violated Idaho’s Open Meeting Law in putting the transaction together. The lawsuit appears to have caught the Board by surprise.
It is important to remember that the Board is his client. A lawyer cannot just haul off and file suit against his own client. It is a clear breach of trust under rules that apply to all licensed Idaho lawyers, including the Attorney General. If there were grounds for believing the Board had violated the law, he should have contacted the Board, gathered the facts and tried to peacefully resolve the situation. It was reported that the Board’s deputy attorney general (DAG) advised Board members they were acting within the law. That would certainly be an important fact to consider.
This is not the first time Labrador has ambushed his own clients with legal action. He famously initiated an investigative proceeding against the Department of Health and Welfare (DHW), its Director and two staffers over the distribution of federal early childhood education funds to upwards of 80 community non-profits. In that case there was no prior warning to his clients, the distribution had been okayed by his DAG and his actions clearly violated the lawyer-client relationship.
The DHW debacle prompted two lawsuits against Labrador–one by his DHW clients and one by many of the non-profit recipients of the federal funds. The Idaho Supreme Court has taken the non-profit suit on appeal and it is possible that the state will have to pay the attorney fees of both sides.
The cost of the unwarranted legal action has already been felt by DHW. Six of its eight DAGs resigned or were fired. One of them accused Labrador of providing “subpar and even unethical representation to the Department.” According to the Director, “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.” The Director said the problem could have been avoided if Labrador had given him a phone call.
Labrador has claimed these incidents were prompted by his desire for open government. Yet, he has steadfastly refused to disclose who made the accusations that resulted in the action against DHW. The Idaho Freedom Foundation is the prime suspect. Then, there is the peculiar letter Labrador wrote to Representative Brent Crane on the 27th of March, saying, among other things, that “Idaho law prohibits an Idaho medical provider from either referring a woman across state lines to access abortion services or prescribing abortion pills for the woman to pick up across state lines.”
The letter prompted a lawsuit against Labrador in federal court. After the suit was filed, Labrador withdrew the letter, claiming it was, in essence, a secret communication. His DAGs tied themselves in knots in front of the federal judge, trying to explain that the letter had been withdrawn by Labrador, but not disavowed. That’s just the opposite of open government. That suit is likely to end with the state paying attorney fees.
Here’s a little advice for Labrador from one who occupied the AG office for 8 years. Be honest, respect the attorney-client relationship with state agencies and employees, don’t do stupid things just because the Idaho Freedom Foundation demands it of you. The best way to run for Governor is to do a credible job of being the lawyer for the State of Idaho. Neither the State nor the Attorney General will benefit from gunslinger tactics.