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Idaho legislators grill McGeachin over supplemental budget request for legal fees

Idaho

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BOISE (Idaho Capital Sun) — Legislative budget writers from both major political parties grilled Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin on Wednesday over her supplemental budget request to cover her outside legal fees from a court case she lost after failing to release public records.

The showdown occurred near the end of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee’s slate of budget hearings on Wednesday morning at the Idaho State Capitol in Boise.

McGeachin, an Idaho Falls Republican, presented her annual budget request for the lieutenant governor’s office and a supplemental budget request to cover $28,973.84 in legal fees from the Idaho Press Club that a judge ordered McGeachin to pay.

For the first time publicly, McGeachin also disclosed Wednesday that she has received invoices for her own legal bills. Those bills were in addition to and not figured into the $28,973.84 supplemental budget request.

The Idaho Capital Sun filed a written public records request seeking those newest invoices shortly before Wednesday’s budget hearing. McGeachin’s office had yet to issue a response by this article’s publication.

Legislators serving on JFAC did not make any decisions or recommendations about her supplemental budget request Wednesday. Instead, two committee members requested additional documentation from McGeachin.

“In order for us to make an educated decision on her request, we need to have all the information that she is talking about and we need it in writing, not verbally,” Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell, told the Idaho Capital Sun after the hearing. “That is why I asked, so we can make educated decisions on her request for her supplemental budget.”

Syme requested copies of any Attorney General’s Office opinions on the legal case, as well as a written timeline of events.

Rep. Colin Nash, D-Boise, had previously requested a breakdown of McGeachin’s own legal bills in October.

He again asked about the bills on Wednesday, and also requested copies of Attorney General’s Office opinions.

Nash said on Tuesday that he again requested McGeachin’s invoices for her own legal representation, but was told they were subject to an internal review and could not be released.

“She continues to claim that she received inadequate advice from the attorney general, and if that is the case and she wants her legal bills covered, then we need to see those opinions, which we requested in October but not been provided,” Nash told the Sun on Wednesday.

On Oct. 14, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and his office released a public written statement about the McGeachin case.

“The Office of the Attorney General offered its final legal counsel on this matter to the lieutenant governor on June 7, 2021,” the statement said. “Following that communication, the lieutenant governor made an independent decision to seek outside representation. Then — approximately six weeks after our final counsel — the Idaho Press Club filed its lawsuit.”

McGeachin has said she cannot afford to cover the legal expenses with her office’s budget. She said Wednesday she asked Wasden to pay for her legal fees out of the Attorney General’s Office budget, but he declined.

Where did the legal fees come from?

The legal fees relate to a July 2021 lawsuit the Idaho Press Club filed after journalists from several news organizations, including the Idaho Capital Sun, filed public records requests seeking the release of public comments related to McGeachin’s education task force.

McGeachin initially consulted with the Idaho Attorney General’s office, but retained a private attorney, D. Colton Boyles of Boyles Law, to represent her after she declined to release complete, unredacted copies.

In June, McGeachin’s office did provide 238 pages of task force records to the Sun, but most of the records were covered in black boxes marked “redacted,” including the commenter’s name, contact information and the public comments themselves, which were blacked out.

McGeachin told JFAC members on Wednesday her office had redacted the names and email addresses of people who left comments for the education task force out of an effort to project their identity.

Eventually, District Judge Steven Hippler ordered McGeachin to release the full, unredacted records and pay Idaho Press Club’s legal fees in the case.

McGeachin released the records to the Sun in September, and the vast majority of the 3,602 comments McGeachin received were opposed to her or her task for or pushed back against her allegations of indoctrination in public schools.

On Sept. 17 an Idaho Division of Financial Management analyst wrote to McGeachin’s chief of staff, Jordan Watters, telling him state law requires state officers to be represented by the attorney general, public records obtained by the Sun indicate. Waters responded Oct. 8, public records indicate, writing that the Attorney General’s Office did represent McGeachin until June 7 and then McGeachin “was advised to seek outside legal counsel.”

Where did the new legal fees come from?

The $28,973 only covers the Idaho Press Club’s legal fees. Until recently, McGeachin and her staff have said she did not have or could not find any legal invoices for her own representation.

In response to Nash’s questions on Wednesday, McGeachin said she finally did receive invoices in December from Boyles, the attorney who represented her in the lawsuit over public records. McGeachin did not disclose the cost of the invoices and said her staff was in the process of “auditing” the legal invoices. It was not immediately clear why it would take several weeks for McGeachin and her staff to audit legal bills that her office received in December. McGeachin did not elaborate.

The Idaho Capital Sun has filed multiple public records requests since June 15, 2021 seeking copies of McGeachin’s invoices from Boyles. In response, McGeachin’s chief of staff, Watters, said they did not have records of invoices. McGeachin even took to Twitter to address the requests, tweeting in October, “We can’t find what we don’t have and we haven’t received any invoices.”

The matter of McGeachin’s supplemental budget request and legal fees is likely to come up again when JFAC shifts from budget hearings to budget setting, which will likely happen in late February.

McGeachin’s total budget request for 2023 is $188,000, which is one of the smallest components of the state’s proposed $4.5 billion budget.

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