An open meetings lawsuit will continue to loom over the proposed University of Phoenix purchase — possibly for several more months.
A judge has ordered a trial in the case to settle one legal issue: Was the University of Idaho in competition with other bidders as it pursued the $685 million Phoenix purchase?
Attorney General Raúl Labrador’s lawsuit is one of several big obstacles standing in the way of the Phoenix purchase. Accreditors for the U of I and Phoenix must approve the deal, and a nonprofit must go into the bond marketing to line up financing.
And the clock is ticking.
U of I and Phoenix officials hope to close the deal by early next year. Either party can walk away from the table after May 31 if no deal is in place, State Board of Education Executive Director Matt Freeman said in a recent court deposition.
The trial will push the legal dispute closer to that May 31 date, although the timeframe isn’t set. Ada County District Judge Jason Scott has set a Nov. 16 hearing to set a trial date. In his order, issued Wednesday, Scott said he wants to finish the trial within three months.
After that, either side could appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court.
While Scott’s 33-page ruling kept the June 20 lawsuit alive, it also narrowed the scope of the case considerably.
Scott rejected several arguments from Labrador’s legal team. He said the State Board’s May 15 closed-door discussion met one criteria of the law, since board members were holding “preliminary negotiations” about a possible Phoenix purchase. Scott also rejected Labrador’s objections to the agenda for the State Board’s May 18 meeting — its one open session on the issue, which ended in a unanimous board vote supporting the purchase.
The State Board, which doubles as the U of I’s board of regents, held three closed-door meetings to discuss Phoenix. Board members said the closed meetings were justified under a section of law which allows closed meetings for “preliminary negotiations” of a transaction that pits an Idaho public agency against public bidders from other states or nations.
One public bidder for Phoenix, the University of Arkansas, appeared to drop out of the running on April 24, when its board of regents voted down a purchase. State Board and U of I officials have insisted the bidding process was competitive, although no one has named any other suitors publicly.
In a statement, Labrador conceded that the court had dismissed several of his arguments, but claimed vindication.
“For months, the State Board of Education has resisted accountability and has loudly claimed that my office was pursuing baseless claims,” Labrador said. “The court’s decision demonstrates just how credible this case has always been.”
In a statement Monday, Freeman predicted the State Board will prevail at trial — while decrying the legal battle that began five months ago.
“The State Board of Education is pleased that Judge Scott dismissed all but one of the attorney general’s claims,” Freeman said. “It is unfortunate, though, that the public has to bear the expense of having the invalid claims dismissed.”
More reading: Court documents provide a detailed look inside the State Board’s closed-door meetings.