BOISE — A federal judge has ruled that a state senator’s wife overstepped her role as a legal assistant and had an “inappropriate” relationship with a convicted murderer who is suing the Idaho Department of Correction for sexual harassment.
In November, Renee McKenzie, wife of Republican Sen. Curt McKenzie of Nampa, was appointed by a federal court to help Lance Wood, who was imprisoned for life for his role in the 1988 kidnapping and torture slaying of a gay man in Utah.
She was an adviser, not an attorney, and prison officials decided in February she was overstepping the bounds of that relationship. They had intercepted a letter the inmate wrote to McKenzie, which they determined was “clearly of a personal nature.”
Investigators then discovered the two had unmonitored phone conversations lasting 91 hours between December and February. On Feb. 7, they barred McKenzie from visiting Wood.
The relationship between the two isn’t clear from the judge’s order. But in a March 9 phone conversation monitored by prison staff, McKenzie told Wood, “I love you,” and indicated that she wanted to spend her life with him, according to IDOC documents obtained by The Associated Press.
Wood sought a formal court hearing, complaining that the Idaho Department of Corrections had improperly recorded his phone calls with McKenzie and opened and reviewed his legal mail.
But U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill denied Wood’s motion, writing Monday in a 16-page ruling that Wood had no right to privileged communications with Renee McKenzie. She isn’t an attorney and wasn’t working on behalf of a law firm, despite identifying herself to prison officials as “Renee McKenzie of McKenzie Law Office.” Her husband’s law office had nothing to do with the case.
“Ms. McKenzie’s continued presence in this case… has become a side show taking up far too much time and far too many resources of the Court, counsel and the parties,” Winmill wrote.
Reached Tuesday, Renee McKenzie said her relationship with Wood is “irrelevant.”
More important, she said, is his unfair treatment by the Department of Correction.
“For the first time ever, an inmate has an advocate on the outside of prison,” Renee McKenzie said. “I want you to write this down: The real issue is opening legal mail, outside of an inmate’s presence.”
Department of Correction spokesman Jeff Ray declined to comment Tuesday on Winmill’s order, saying his agency has sought to ensure a safe and orderly prison operation.
Reached Tuesday, Curt McKenzie said he learned of the Department of Correction’s concerns in February.
“Through her work on parole cases, Renee felt a desire to help those who are incarcerated,” McKenzie said. “It appears that during the course that she was assisting Mr. Wood with his trial, he took advantage of that in order to try and gain some advantage in his case.”
Though prison officials cited concerns in investigative documents that Wood might seek to exploit his position in the Legislature, McKenzie said he never felt compromised.
“I don’t believe the Department of Correction, the director, the warden or the judge in this case did anything wrong with respect to this investigation,” he said.