(UPDATED, 4:35 p.m., with comment from the State Board of Education.)
The attorney general’s office and the State Board of Education have spent months arguing about closed meetings.
Now, they’re fighting about who should pay the lawyers.
Attorney General Raúl Labrador’s office is refusing to pay for the State Board’s hired outside counsel — for legal bills that already exceed $81,000. Labrador’s staff says the State Board has “unilaterally” hired a lawyer — and is paying too much in the process.
The latest salvo in this legal battle centers on a section of state law, which governs the hiring of outside attorneys.
Under the law, a state agency is responsible for paying its own outside legal bills — unless the governor consults with the attorney general beforehand, and governor decides the agency needs outside counsel.
“That did not happen,” chief deputy attorney general Phillip Broadbent said in a letter Tuesday to State Board Executive Director Matt Freeman.
The State Board hired outside counsel days after Labrador sued the State Board, saying the board violated open meetings law by holding three closed-door meetings to discuss the University of Idaho’s proposed purchase of the University of Phoenix.
Labrador filed his lawsuit on June 20. In a June 30 letter to Labrador’s office, Freeman said the board was forced to hire its own independent counsel to defend itself in court. And even before that, on June 26, Boise attorney Trudy Hanson Fouser began billing the State Board for her work, according to invoices previously obtained by Idaho Education News through a public records request.
If Gov. Brad Little’s staff and Labrador’s staff had talked beforehand, Labrador’s staff would have been able to appoint an attorney to the case, at a rate of $185 an hour, Broadbent wrote. Fouser is receiving $300 an hour as the State Board’s lead attorney in the open meetings lawsuit.
“That decision to hire outside counsel without following the proper process and to pay significantly greater attorney fees was not justified,” Broadbent wrote.
Through spokesman Mike Keckler, the State Board issued a terse response Thursday afternoon. “We are reviewing the attorney general’s analysis used as the basis for the denial.”
The open meetings lawsuit is one of several obstacles in the path of the U of I’s proposed $685 million purchase of Phoenix. And the stakes are high. If Labrador prevails in court, this would void the State Board’s May 18 vote to greenlight the purchase.
The lawsuit now hinges on one question: Did the U of I face competition from another public bidder in its pursuit of Phoenix? The State Board cited competition as a rationale for its three closed-door meetings.
The question will go to trial. Ada County District Judge Jason Scott set a Jan. 22 trial date on Thursday.