Lawsuits looming over state broadband claims

(UPDATED, 9:22 a.m. Monday.)

The state did not respond to a pair of tort claims seeking at least $6 million in damages from the Idaho Education Network broadband debacle, the Associated Press reported Friday.

That means the contractors, Education Networks of America and CenturyLink, can take the state to court. Kriss Bivens-Cloyd, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, told Idaho Education News she was unaware of any lawsuits filed by the contractors.

The contractors filed their tort claims in early March. A tort claim is not a civil lawsuit; rather, it is a precursor to a lawsuit. Those filings put the state on the clock, giving its attorneys 90 days to respond. The state did not file responses, Deputy Attorney General Scott Zanzig told Kimberlee Kruesi of the AP.

In the tort claims, ENA and CenturyLink both seek back payments for contract work on the network, a $60 million project to provide high-speed Internet to high schools across Idaho.

The project itself is in mothballs. Ada County District Judge Patrick Owen voided the state’s contracts with ENA and CenturyLink, leaving districts and the State Department of Education to cobble together local broadband contracts. When the network contract was voided, the state suspended its payments to contractors, citing a state law that forbids agencies from paying out on an invalid contract.

In their tort claims, the contractors have argued that this constitutes a breach of contract and an illegal taking of private property.

ENA, the lead network contractor, claimed some $6 million in damages, “including ancillary damages, plus statutory interest, costs, expenses and reasonable attorneys’ fees.”

CenturyLink did not outline specific damages in its tort claim, but said it was owed “full payment for all services rendered,” plus 12 percent in annual interest. CenturyLink has said it is owed more than $1 million by ENA for broadband service to schools, and the state has said it owes CenturyLink $540,000 for providing broadband to state agencies, an offshoot of the network project.

“While at this time we have not filed a lawsuit, CenturyLink provided services in good faith to state agencies and the Idaho Education Network, as a subcontractor, under the broadband contract,” company spokesman Mark Molzen said in a statement Friday. “We have not been paid for these services. We expect the state to fulfill its obligation to pay for those services, just as it would for any other services it contracted for and benefitted from.”

ENA declined comment Monday.

Robert Geddes — the new director of the Idaho Department of Administration, the agency overseeing the network — declined comment Friday, deferring to the attorney general’s office. Geddes, a former state senator, was appointed to head the Administration Department on May 20, in the midst of the state’s 90-day window for response.

Gov. Butch Otter declined comment Friday.