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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Idaho’s McGeachin did the dancing – she ought to pay the fiddler

Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin presides over the Senate at the Idaho Capitol on April 6, 2021.  (Otto Kitsinger/Idaho Capital Sun)
Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin presides over the Senate at the Idaho Capitol on April 6, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger/Idaho Capital Sun)

If you want to dance all night, you have to pay the fiddler.

This is what my early-rising, industrious mother used to tell me whenever I tried to escape the consequences of some frivolous, foolish thing I’d done.

Gotta pay the fiddler.

Idaho’s out-of-this-world lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin, owes the fiddler almost 30 grand for her misbegotten attempt to keep secrets about her “education task force” last summer.

She thinks the public should pay it.

She has repeatedly pleaded, like Oliver Twist holding up his bowl, to be saved from her folly by Idaho taxpayers, most recently appealing to the Idaho Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee to cover legal bills she frivolously, foolishly incurred.

The committee should roundly reject this request.

This bill is all McGeachin’s – her office’s, at least.

This arises from the witch hunt she led last year against Idaho schools, forming a “task force” of ideologues to go searching for leftist indoctrination. As part of that charade, she gathered thousands of comments from Idahoans outside of the actual task force meetings, which were show trials with little true public input. When news organizations asked her to turn over these comments, which were clearly public records under Idaho law, she resisted, then heavily redacted them.

The news organizations sued, and the judge, Ada County 4th District Judge Steven Hippler, ruled in their favor last August, ordering the release of the unredacted comments. In a vigorous dressing-down, Hippler deployed a kaleidoscopic range of modifiers to critique McGeachin’s arguments: “irrelevant,” “misplaced,” “remarkably baseless,” “unreasonable.”

“(McGeachin’s) conduct was deliberate and in bad faith,” he wrote in a 27-page ruling. “Based primarily on the plainly inapplicable, baseless exemptions proffered … in refusing disclosure, it appears to the Court that (McGeachin) would stop at nothing, no matter how misguided, to shield public records from the public.”

Another adjective Hippler applied, crucially, was “frivolous.” For that – for wasting the court’s time with a bad-faith argument – the judge fined her $750, as well as ordering her to pay the attorneys fees for the news organizations.

McGeachin, a supposed fiscal conservative, thinks the Idaho general fund ought to foot the bill.

She appears to believe everyone is to blame for this but her. When she addressed the legislative committee last week, she railed against the media and claimed she’d been doxxed. She has painted her efforts to violate the law as a valiant attempt to protect commenters’ privacy. She said that if her office – with an annual budget of around $183,000 – has to cover the bill, she may have to cut staff. In a fair world, she’d have to foot the bill herself, personally, but at the very least, she shouldn’t get an extra stipend from taxpayers.

She has blamed her loss in court on the attorney general’s office, which advised her in no uncertain terms to simply turn over the records as required by law. She ignored them, and went out and hired a private attorney. She later had the chutzpah to ask the attorney general to pay for the dubious legal services she obtained at the cost of $29,000, before turning to the legislative committee.

As a spokesman for the attorney general dryly put it last year: “This entire matter is an excellent demonstration of why government should seek legal counsel that it needs to hear instead of what it wants to hear.”

One of the main things about the entire indoctrination circus that the public wanted to hear, and was legally entitled to hear, was just what Idahoans had to say about it. It’s relevant to note how thoroughly opposed to McGeachin’s mission most commenters were.

As the Idaho Statesman reported at the time, some commenters expressed concerns similar to those shared by the task force members – “the scourge of critical race theory, socialism, communism and Marxism.”

“But far more of the comments opposed the task force,” the newspaper reported. “People who identified as teachers, students, parents and concerned citizens raised concerns about what the task force was doing, calling its allegations baseless and unfounded. Much of the feedback was in stark contrast to what the task force heard and discussed at its four meetings between May and August.”

It’s enough to make one suspect that McGeachin’s devotion to keeping the comments a secret had to do with how intensely they criticized her.

Whatever the reason, though, it’s no one else’s fault that she kept trying to dance around the law – and it’s no one else’s bill to pay.

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