New mandate for Attorney General’s Office

In 2005, the Idaho Attorney General’s Special Prosecutions Unit accepted 144 of 161 requests to investigate cases of public corruption or capital or complex crimes.

In the past three years, the unit has been averaging about 30 prosecutions a year.

Idaho legislators took notice.

“We have had legislators complain about our failure to prosecute people and we have had to tell them, ‘We don’t have the people,’” said Paul Panther, chief of the criminal law division.

So, this winter, legislators boosted the agency’s budget by $617,000, allowing the unit to hire another lawyer and two investigators as of July.

Recession-driven budget cuts reduced the unit’s staff by half — to two prosecutors and two investigators. And the office told prosecutors and local governments its staff was tapped out.

“We actually had to meet with them and say, ‘Stop asking us. We do not have the resources. We cannot help you,’” Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said. “We had to turn them away.”

Mandate to investigate

But the workload may not ease with the additional staffers.

Beginning July 1, the Special Prosecutions Unit must investigate any complaint it receives against an elected county official accused of violating state law. That’s a change: Existing law allows only a county prosecutor or board of commissioners to ask the Attorney General’s Office to investigate a case, and the office can choose whether to take it.

“Yes, we will have more resources on July 1, but we also will now have statutorily required investigations we are supposed to do,” Wasden said.

Ada County citizens could have benefited from this new law several years ago.

When critics couldn’t get the Ada County prosecutor to look into the commissioners’ dealings with Dynamis for a proposed trash-to-electricity plant at the landfill, they took the county to court. After nearly two years of public pressure, Prosecutor Greg Bower appointed a special prosecutor to look into the matter: The inquiry concluded the commissioners’ actions were troubling, but didn’t rise to the level of criminal misconduct.

Had the new law been in effect, the citizens could have taken their complaint directly to the Attorney General’s Office, which would have had to look into the matter.

Another example is Jefferson County Sheriff Blair Olsen’s alleged misuse of public funds. When initially asked to conduct an inquiry, the AG’s office did not have the resources. Resources later became available, and the office began an investigation that is underway.

New tool, new authority

Three new staffers should be sufficient to “handle the increased workload attributable to that bill,” Wasden said

He noted, however, that the unit still will have one fewer attorney than it did in 2008. The new law also gives the office a needed tool for addressing public misconduct and corruption.

“In the past, there’s been many times people have called and said, ‘Can you do something about this? This is going on,’” Panther said. “We now have the authority to go in and investigate when we get complaints against elected officials.”

How the new law works

When the AG receives a complaint about an elected county official or prosecutor, it will conduct a preliminary investigation. The office will determine whether further investigation is warranted.

“If an investigation into a county official is warranted, then the case goes back to the county prosecutor, who is required to appoint a special prosecutor,” Wasden said. “If the target of the investigation is a county prosecutor, however, then the AG’s office will be the special prosecutor handling the case.”

Wasden and his staff are working out the logistics for how complaints can be made to his office.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, aimed to eliminate conflicts of interest for county prosecutors. Those prosecutors are lawyers who represent county elected officials in their official day-to-day duties, as well as prosecute misconduct by those same officials.

Grant Loebs, Twin Falls prosecuting attorney and a board member of the Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said the new law formalizes and standardizes what many counties do already.

“I don’t believe there is a systemic problem,” he said. “I believe there are very few isolated incidents, which by and large have been handled properly. But they have been handled properly in an ad-hoc individual basis.”