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Eye on Boise: Idaho Supreme Court slams ‘corrupted’ broadband project

Betsy Russell (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Betsy Russell (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Idaho has lost again in court over its voided $60 million contract for the now-defunct Idaho Education Network.

The state now faces an order to pay the winning side’s attorney fees of nearly $1 million as well as tens of millions in additional liability and possible lawsuits from the contractors, who already have filed multimillion-dollar tort claims against the state.

The deal was signed by then-state Department of Administration Director Mike Gwartney, a close friend of Gov. Butch Otter who took only a $1-a-year salary when he held the position from 2006 to 2010.

An Idaho Supreme Court ruling issued last week, which abbreviates “Department of Administration” as “DOA,” said, “Rather than recognizing that the actions of former director Gwartney corrupted the procurement process, DOA doggedly defended that process to the bitter end. … Nothing in the protracted proceedings subsequently rendered DOA’s defense reasonable.”

The network was designed to bring high-speed broadband to every Idaho high school. Idaho schools now get broadband on their own at a much lower cost. Courts found the contract was illegally issued to two politically connected vendors; a third vendor sued.

In praise of Idaho

“It’s been over 20 years since I stood at this podium,” former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus declared Friday as he addressed the House during its “Idaho Day” commemoration – speaking from the same lectern at which Idaho governors give their annual State of the State addresses to lawmakers. He joined former Idaho Govs. Jim Risch and Dirk Kempthorne and current Gov. Butch Otter in speaking about what they love about Idaho. A statement from former Gov. Phil Batt also was read.

“One of the things that I love about this state is the fact that we have millions of acres of public land – now, I said public land, not federal land,” Andrus said. “It’s public land owned by the public, managed by agencies of the federal government, under the rules and regulations that are put down by the Congress of the United States. And those millions of acres contribute tremendously to the economy of the state of Idaho.”

Andrus, a four-term Idaho governor and a former U.S. secretary of the interior, said he wants his great-great-grandchildren to also benefit from the public lands.

“Now I know there are people in this state and in this room today, and in other areas across America, where a few of them are saying that the title of those lands should go to the states,” Andrus said. “Ladies and gentlemen, that would be a devastating, ridiculous move that cannot happen, will not happen, because it would take congressional action, and believe me, I’ve been around long enough to tell you that the Congress of the United States is not going to permit that to happen.”

Risch, now a second-term U.S. senator from Idaho, responded to Andrus when it was his turn to speak.

“Cece, since you’ve opened this up about our federal lands, there isn’t any Idahoan that isn’t incredibly proud of our scenery and our magnificent public lands,” he said. “Although you and I don’t always agree, I will agree with you on this, and that is that the United States Congress is not going to part with title to that property.”

“Having said that,” Risch said, “these lands lie within the bounds of the sovereign state of Idaho, and as such this sovereign state should have, has had and will continue to have some say in how these lands are managed.”

He pointed to the roadless rule developed when he was governor, which applies to 9.2 million acres of roadless public lands.

“We did that. We did that collaboratively,” Risch said. “It was a rule written by Idahoans. … That’s the way to do it.”

Kempthorne paid tribute to an array of Idaho leaders, and also to Idaho’s young people, military members, cultural minorities and more.

“Idaho does it as it should be done,” he said.

Batt had planned to attend but was ill.

“Idaho is one of the best models of an ideal free-enterprise state abounding with water, timber and mineral wealth, providing her citizens with many opportunities for livelihood and enjoyment,” he said in his statement. “Idaho is one of the brightest stars in these United States. Let’s keep it that way.”

Otter shared some personal stories, including attending 15 schools between the first grade and high school graduation as his parents moved from one Idaho community to another, and recalled his varying roles in state government, from serving as a high school page in the Legislature to serving as lieutenant governor for multiple governors.

“We can only judge our future and the potential in our future by what we’ve done in the past,” he said.

Reporter Betsy Z. Russell can be reached at betsyr@spokesman.com or (208) 336-2854. Follow her on the Eye on Boise blog at www.spokesman.com/blogs/boise.