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Wednesday, October 23, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Idaho’s legal hire looks bad

Idaho’s wasteful habit of hiring outside counsel rather than using available state-paid attorneys continues, and the latest example comes with a whiff of cronyism.

Gov. Butch Otter’s chief attorney, Tom Perry, retired in April, leaving a position that paid him $100,755 a year. Then the state hired him to take on the U.S. Department of Interior in a dispute over land use rules related to the greater sage grouse, which was removed from the endangered species list in August.

In the past two months, the state has paid Perry $142,000. The money comes from the Legislative Legal Defense Fund, which was created in 2012 to pay private attorneys for input on the takeover of federal public lands, greater sage grouse management and the state’s health insurance exchange, according to the Associated Press.

The state has 21 attorneys in the Natural Resources Division of the Attorney General’s Office. The division chief has 30 years of experience and is touted by the University of Idaho Law School for his expertise in many areas, including the Endangered Species Act..

But Otter and legislative leaders hired Perry, who worked for the governor for 10 years, because he and his colleagues are deemed to be the most qualified on this issue, according to House Speaker Scott Bedke.

Nonetheless, the appearance of favoritism should have steered the state to someone else. At the time Perry resigned his government job, he was chairman of the governor’s greater sage grouse task force. This is the kind of revolving-door hiring practice that is prohibited under other states’ ethics laws.

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “If this was such an important thing to pursue, why was the governor not pursuing it out of his office, rather than having somebody who was on his staff leave, then be hired back at a higher pay? It doesn’t seem right.”

The greater sage grouse dispute started with news the state wanted to hear: The feds were taking the bird off the endangered species list. But the state contends the feds added some land use rules that went too far, so it filed a lawsuit.

If history is any indication, taxpayers won’t get much satisfaction from this legal action. Private firms charge anywhere between $125 to $400 an hour, compared with salaried attorneys with the AG’s Office, which cost less than $60 a hour.

Apart from the Legislative Legal Fund, the state established the Constitutional Defense Fund in 1995, giving it $1 million. The money has been used to push the position that the federal government has usurped state powers in areas such as abortion and gay marriage. It’s been 19 years since the fund won a case, and it has paid out $2.1 million in legal costs, according to AP.

Taxpayers lose. Lawyers win. And lawmakers replenish the fund, so they can engage in more ideological jousting. Because Idaho is essentially a one-party state, this politically popular waste of resources is allowed to continue. That’s bad enough.

But an ethical boundary is crossed when former associates profit.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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