Judge reins in depositions in Labrador’s open meetings lawsuit

An Ada County judge Thursday reined in Attorney General Raúl Labrador and his staff’s far-reaching requests to depose State Board of Education members.

While procedural, District Judge Jason Scott’s ruling represented a setback for Labrador — and a win for the State Board’s hired lawyer — in an ongoing and politically charged lawsuit over the University of Idaho’s plans to purchase the University of Phoenix.

Labrador sued the State Board in June, saying the board violated state law by discussing the controversial $685 million purchase in a series of closed-door executive sessions. His team’s recent legal maneuvers were at issue Thursday.

Labrador’s legal team has pursued a series of far-reaching subpoenas, seeking a broad range of documents from the State Board, Phoenix and Tyton Partners, Phoenix’s financial advisers on the sale. Labrador’s team also sought to depose all eight State Board members individually, part of a series of more than a dozen depositions.

Trudy Fouser, the Boise attorney hired to represent the State Board, has called the requests a burdensome and costly taxpayer-funded “fishing expedition.”

Scott instructed Labrador’s team to cast a narrower net. He said the attorneys could depose four board members, briefly, and concentrate on open meetings issues.

“It seems to me to be a reasonable place to start,” Scott said.

The open meetings dispute centers on one section of state open meetings law, which allows agencies to go behind closed doors to hold preliminary discussions about a transaction, if they are in competition with other states or nations. The State Board used this section of law to justify three closed-door meetings about a possible Phoenix purchase. The board gave the purchase the green light on May 18, three days after the its third executive session.

Labrador’s lawsuit contends that the closed-door meetings were not preliminary at all — and has questioned whether other bidders were pursuing a Phoenix purchase.

In curtailing Labrador’s requests, Scott seemed to side with the State Board’s interpretation of the law. He suggested that a preliminary discussion could cover any talks before a contract is signed, and that the idea of competition could hinge on a “reasonable” assessment on the marketplace.

The next step in the case is a hearing scheduled for Oct. 26 — and Scott could rule at that time.

Josh Turner, Labrador’s deputy solicitor general, suggested his team might need more time before that hearing, but stopped short of asking for an extension. “We’re not interested in dragging this out.”

The U of I and the State Board have said the ongoing legal battle could jeopardize the Phoenix deal, and on Thursday, Fouser urged Scott to keep the case on schedule. “Time is not on our side.”

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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