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Funding spat leads to veto

BOISE – Changes in Idaho law designed to make sure public corruption and open meeting law violations by county officials are adequately investigated have been vetoed by a governor who actually supports the changes.

Gov. Butch Otter, caught in the middle of a spat between House leaders and the state Attorney General’s office, vetoed SB 1080, because a companion measure to provide funding for the new program died without a vote in the House. “I agree with this legislation’s intent,” Otter wrote in his veto message. “Unfortunately, the decision by the House of Representatives not to take up the … appropriation in SB 1195 makes my veto necessary.”

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden requested the veto, writing to the governor that he asked for the move “with deepest regret.” Without the funding, Wasden wrote, SB 1080 was “an unfunded mandate.”

Six Canyon County lawmakers banded together to sponsor the bill, in the wake of that county’s experience with disgraced former county Prosecutor John Bujak, whose case has included embezzlement charges and multiple lawsuits, but no convictions. It would have made the Attorney General’s office responsible for the preliminary investigations in cases in which county elected officials are accused of criminal or civil offenses or open meeting law violations, rather than the local county prosecutor – who also serves as those officials’ lawyer in their day-to-day work, and thereby has a conflict of interest.

Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, the bill’s lead sponsor, said, “It will help citizens have greater confidence that things are done right and that problems are resolved appropriately.”

The follow-up appropriation bill, SB 1195, gave the Attorney General’s office $212,000 a year to hire an additional attorney and investigator to investigate such crimes or violations. It passed the Senate with only one “no” vote – from Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, who voted against all appropriation bills – but was pulled from the House floor.

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, asked her and her vice chairman, Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, to pull the bill back to their committee. “He said they didn’t need it,” Bell said. “We were perfectly willing to fund what they needed. What he said was they can do it out of their budget.”

Bell said she felt obliged to comply with Moyle’s request because it came from leadership. But House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said, “We didn’t discuss it as a leadership group.” Bedke, who along with Moyle and Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, cast the only votes in either house against SB 1080, said, “I thought that these types of investigations went to the Attorney General anyway, frankly. I guess maybe we all should have done more due diligence.”

The Attorney General’s budget has been especially pinched by budget cuts in recent years; it’s now $1.5 million less than it was in 2009. Wasden told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this year that reduced numbers of attorneys in his office due to budget cuts has resulted in the state spending millions more to hire outside attorneys who charge far higher rates.

Moyle said he worked with several House members to amend SB 1080 in the House to ensure that only the preliminary investigation would be up to the Attorney General’s office; after that, the case would be referred back to the county, which would be required to appoint a special prosecutor.

“Once the amendments were made to the bill, it was my understanding that the funding was not necessary,” Moyle said.

Bob Cooper, spokesman for Wasden’s office, said, “It didn’t provide funding to do the preliminary investigations either.” Plus, in cases where the office did the preliminary investigation, it likely would be appointed as the special prosecutor.

Cooper noted that under current law, counties can request the Attorney General’s office to investigate such cases and name it as special prosecutor, but the office can refuse if it lacks the resources. Under SB 1080, that option would be gone. Last year, the office had to decline 15 requests from counties, Cooper said, “because we didn’t have the people available to do it.”

He said, “The attorney general would have had a mandate without the resources to fulfill it.”

Moyle makes it clear he’s no fan of Wasden’s office; he backed an unsuccessful proposal several years ago from Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, to have the Legislature set up its own legal office rather than use the Attorney General. “I think that maybe they could do a better job with the funds that they have,” Moyle said.

Bolz said, “I had some people tell me they would debate against the appropriation.” He said, “I thought we don’t need a fight on the floor this late in the session.” Bolz said he figured the amendment might have lowered the cost of the bill, so he and Bell thought it could be addressed at the start of next year’s session with a supplemental appropriation bill “once we know what the costs are.”

Otter, in his veto message, encouraged the bill’s sponsors to come back next year with a measure that includes the appropriate funding.