Attorney General: West Ada chair likely doesn’t have conflict of interest under state law

Signs posted outside the West Ada School District office allege that Board Chair Amy Johnson is unfit to make public health decisions for the district while employed in health insurance. / Blake Jones, Idaho Education News

A West Ada School Board meeting began Monday night, inside a sparsely filled board room without talk of pandemic protocols on the agenda.

Meanwhile, outside district offices, Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” washed over some 80 anti-mask protesters calling for board chair Amy Johnson’s recall and recusal from making public health decisions.

It was perhaps the most visible flashpoint in a still-informal recall bid against Johnson. Recall leader and parent David Binetti, who organizes parents against district mask mandates, launched a website calling for Johnson’s ouster less than two weeks ago. He’s basing the campaign on his allegation that Johnson’s employment at the Blue Cross of Idaho insurance company creates a conflict of interest while she holds the power to affect school health policies — like mask requirements.

The Idaho attorney general’s office weighed in last week: “Unless there is a personal pecuniary benefit involved” in situations like these, “there is no conflict of interest.”

“It is essential to note that stretching conflicts of interest to policy positions or strongly held personal beliefs would run counter to our system of elected representative government,” Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane wrote in a letter to West Ada’s legal counsel, Boise law firm Anderson, Julian & Hull. “Many candidates share their employment backgrounds as a means of establishing their bona fides for a position. Just as some may assert a ‘conflict of interest’ based upon a policy position or employer, many others may have voted for that board member specifically based upon their work experience and background.”

(Find the full letter below.)

The district requested the AG’s opinion through Anderson Julian & Hull.

Johnson shared the AG’s opinion with reporters Monday afternoon.

“We asked for this opinion from an unbiased 3rd party and the highest legal office in the state of Idaho prior to any complaint being filed,” she wrote in an email. “We did this to ensure we were operating at the highest level of integrity and to confirm either no conflict or adjust if we were missing something.”

Binetti questioned the opinion’s relevance in an email Monday night. His grievance against Johnson is centered on a district conflict of interest policy, not state law, he noted. “We’re not alleging a violation of Idaho Statu(t)e.”

Binetti contends that Johnson’s decisions surrounding masking amid her employment at Blue Cross at minimum create the “appearance” of a conflict, violating board policy, since the health insurance company publicly supports masks and vaccines. It was also improper for the West Ada board to hear testimony around COVID-19 safety from experts at St. Luke’s health system, he said, since Blue Cross contracts with St. Luke’s.

West Ada has a mask mandate for staff and students in classrooms, put in place by Superintendent Derek Bub, using authority the board gave him.

Johnson has told EdNews she doesn’t discuss school board decisions with Blue Cross, and that hasn’t received any career benefits for her board decisions.

David Binetti speaks during the public comment section of a past board meeting. Nik Streng/Idaho Education News

After first telling EdNews he wouldn’t submit a formal complaint about Johnson to the board because the district is “not in a position to police itself,” Binetti changed course Sunday, sending a complaint to board vice chair Rene Ozuna. He went to the board after the attorney general’s office informed him it doesn’t pursue complaints stemming from local agencies’ conflict-of-interest policies, and that the non-criminal complaint was also out of the Ada County prosecutor’s jurisdiction, he said.

“The fact they are weighing in now suggests politics more than anything else — particularly since they took a stand without even reading the complaint,” Binetti said of the attorney general’s opinion.

In his letter to Ozuna, Binetti requested the vice chair “insist Trustee Johnson immediately step down from the Board Chair and recuse herself” from future public health decisions.

Binetti interprets a school board conflict-of-interest policy as saying “appearances are enough and no underlying actual conflict of interest need even exist for there to be a violation,” he said by email Monday. That’s why he argues his complaint still stands, despite the attorney general’s opinion.

(Find the full complaint below.)

The complaint, while related in content, is separate from the recall effort. Binetti is yet to begin collecting the signatures needed to get a recall on the ballot, he told EdNews Monday night. And no documents have been filed initiating a recall.

As he spoke to a like-minded crowd outside Monday’s West Ada meeting, rallygoers lifted signs emblazoned with slogans like, “Amy You’re Fired,” and “Kids+Masks=Abuse!” A handful of masked counterprotestors stood out in the crowd, calling the recall effort “bullying.”

Other recall backers chanted that “money” motivates Johnson’s decisions on pandemic operations.

Blake Jones

Blake Jones

Reporter Blake Jones covers the politics and policy of Idaho's K-12 public school system. He's a lifelong Idahoan, and holds degrees in Creative Writing and Political Economy from the College of Idaho. Follow Blake on Twitter @jonesblakej. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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