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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Eye On Boise

Report looks back at Gwartney’s role in IEN mess

As the demise of the Idaho Education Network amid legal and financial problems dominates legislative discussion – the Senate is set to approve a stopgap funding bill this morning, already approved by the House, to grant emergency funding for broadband service to local school districts through the state superintendent of schools to replace IEN service, and remove funding for the program from the state Department of Administration – Idaho Falls Post Register reporter Bryan Clark took a look over the weekend at the role of former Department of Administration Director Mike Gwartney in the debacle.

Gwartney, a former Boise Cascade executive and close friend and business partner of Gov. Butch Otter, was heading the department for a salary of $1 a year. In a sworn affidavit in the Syringa lawsuit over the IEN contract award, Clark reports, Syringa CEO Greg Lowe testified that Gwartney and his wife agreed to have dinner with Lowe and lobbyist Kenneth McClure on July 15, 2009. Lowe said he expressed his disappointment with receiving none of the IEN business, since the IEN Alliance, which included Syringa, had the highest technical score and the lowest bid. At that point, Clark writes, Lowe said Gwartney threatened him, saying he would hate to see Syringa's existing state business go away. Syringa had won contracts to provide service to several state agencies.

"Over the following months, DOA blocked roughly $87,000 per month in business to Syringa from various state agencies," Lowe said. "I was informed that the Departments of Health and Welfare, Vocational Rehabilitation, Fish and Game and Department of Labor were all attempting to contract with Syringa, but were forbidden to do so by Gwartney and DOA." Otter stood by Gwartney, even after the Supreme Court placed the blame for the illegal contract at Gwartney's feet, Clark writes, and a concurring opinion not-so-subtly hinted that Syringa should pursue an additional civil suit against him. Clark's full report is online here.

Gwartney became a lightning rod for controversy before he retired from the state in 2010, as reported here. A 2013 Idaho Supreme Court decision said, “Gwartney appears to have been the architect of the State’s effort to bend the contracting rules to Qwest’s advantage.”

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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