Otter outsources more legal work in broadband case

Gov. Butch Otter has hired another outside attorney to work on an aspect of the Idaho Education Network legal fiasco.

Butch Otter
Gov. Butch Otter

The governor has hired a Washington, D.C., firm, as the state scrambles to secure nearly $2 million in federal “e-Rate” dollars for Idaho schools.

Relatively speaking, it’s a modest outsourcing job. For now, Otter’s office has agreed to pay the law firm Harris, Wiltshire and Grannis no more than $7,500 for its work, spokesman Jon Hanian said. The state has paid $1.1 million to Hawley Troxell, the Boise law firm that unsuccessfully defended the Idaho Education Network contract in court.

The “e-Rate” dispute springs from the demise of the network, a broadband system linking Idaho high schools.

In 2013 and 2014, dozens of Idaho schools entered into independent contracts with Education Networks of America, the state’s lead vendor on the Idaho Education Network. The schools’ contracts weren’t directly related to the network itself; instead, the schools were purchasing add-on equipment through ENA.

The schools were hoping to receive federal “e-Rate” dollars to offset their costs. “E-Rate” dollars are collected through monthly phone surcharges. A federal contractor, the Universal Service Administrative Company, manages the money — and under normal circumstances, siphons out the cash to help schools, libraries and other entities pay for high-speed Internet or other technological upgrades.

However, USAC put Idaho Education Network “e-Rate” dollars on hold years ago, as the lawsuits over the project contract worked their way through the state’s courts. And after the Supreme Court voided the Idaho Education Network contract in March, USAC sent out word that it planned to reject the schools’ “e-Rate” applications as well.

That leaves 57 school districts and charter schools on the hook. The financial impact varies. The Pocatello-Chubbuck School District stands to lose $347,000, while in the tiny Camas County School District, $467 is at stake.

On its website, Harris, Wiltshire and Grannis lists telecommunications and technology law as two of its specialties.

“We are dealing with complex and technical areas of the law that is a specialty for this particular firm,” Hanian said Tuesday. “We hired them for that narrowly focused expertise.”

More reading: A state agency declines to seek refunds on the defunct Idaho Education Network project.