BOISE - With tens of millions in legal fees, contract bailouts, settlements and more adding up for the state, it’s time for Idaho to create an office of Inspector General to receive and investigate complaints of waste, fraud, abuse and malfeasance in state government, House Minority Leader John Rusche told lawmakers today.
But members of the House State Affairs Committee were deeply suspicious of Rusche’s proposal, which would set up the office under the governor, with consent of the Senate. Rusche, D-Lewiston, said he worked with the governor’s office, the Attorney General’s office, the Legislative Services Office and the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations to craft the bill; the new office would cost the state $350,000 a year.
Rusche said that cost would be far offset by “the chance to prevent tens of millions in financial loss, and to improve the state’s reputation for transparency and quality government. Just imagine,” he said, “what if the prison guards had been able to raise a concern to the Inspector General? … What if Syringa had complained to the Inspector General and not been forced to go to court to get a second look at the Department of Administration contract process?”
Those were references to the state’s costly losses in its contract with Corrections Corp. of America to run the state’s largest prison, only to take the prison back over after the firm was accused of over-billing the state for non-existent prison staffers; and the lawsuit from Syringa Networks that invalidated the state’s $60 million for the Idaho Education Network, which has cost the state tens of millions in federal funds that were supposed to pay for high school broadband services across the state.
“This bill is not aimed at anyone or stimulated by any one event,” Rusche said, “but it is a better way.”
In response to questions from committee members, he said he researched many options, but concluded the office should fall under the governor’s office as it does in nearly all the other 19 states that have an inspector general’s office. Complaints could come in from state employees, members of the public, or anyone, Rusche said; they’d remain confidential unless the inspector found malfeasance. Then they’d be referred to prosecutors and law enforcement.
Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, asked who takes and investigates those types of complaints now. “That was the problem,” Rusche responded: No one does. Unless there’s a criminal investigation by a county prosecutor, no one looks into such complaints.
Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, “We already have 105 inspector generals in this building,” referring to the 105 state legislators. “I don’t think we need to add more to it. We’re talking about spending $350,000 a year. From what I’ve seen from government agencies, that would just be a beginning. They seem to grow out of control in no time at all. I don’t see where this is going to do anything. I agree there is problems. People do things they aren’t supposed to do. … This is just something to chase after them afterwards. I think we have plenty of people in place to do that.”
He added, “I know that I get phone calls constantly. … I think that we’re elected to do that job and we’re already put here for that.”
Palmer moved to reject Rusche’s bill, not even allowing a hearing on it. His motion was just barely defeated on a 9-8 vote.
Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise said, “I think we need to provide oversight and an opportunity where citizens can go and complain. … I get calls all the time, however I don’t have the bandwidth nor the expertise to investigate in a professional, confidential manner if a complaint is made. I think a professional office is a good thing.”
Reps. Don Cheatham, R-Coeur d’Alene, and Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, questioned a clause in the bill that said the inspector general’s office could accept federal grants, and said that concerned them.
Andrus said, “We’re creating another level of bureaucracy. I agree we may save some money, we may catch some things that we wouldn’t otherwise. But … I just hate to at taxpayer money create another level of bureaucracy that could grow and grow and grow and justify themselves.”
The House State Affairs Committee then voted to introduce the bill and allow a hearing on it, but the vote was divided. Those voting “no” and requesting that their “no” votes be recorded were Reps. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene; Cheatham; Gayle Batt, R-Wilder; Andrus; Palmer; and Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton.
Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, who supported introducing the bill, said, “I do see a benefit to having a specific place where the public can come and file a complaint when there’s concerns like this. I’m not sure that the executive office of the governor is the place to put it. I would like to, however, explore the issue.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.