(Idaho Capital Sun) — The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is suing Attorney General Raúl Labrador’s office to halt its investigation into the agency’s administration of $36 million in federal child care grants.
Labrador’s Chief of Civil Litigation, Lincoln Wilson, issued civil investigative demands on March 3 to IDHW Director Dave Jeppesen, as well as Deputy Director Jennifer Palagi and division administrator Shane Leach.
In them, Wilson demanded the three officials hand over all documents related to the Community Partner Grant program, along with the names and contact information of all department employees, current and former, who worked on the program in any capacity.
By issuing these demands, Jeppesen said Labrador is creating an “adversarial relationship” with his own client.
State law requires the attorney general to represent all state agencies in legal matters. If there’s a conflict of interest, the AG’s office may authorize the hiring of an outside attorney.
IDHW maintains that it properly issued that grant money, which was part of the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to documents filed Thursday in state district court.
Last year, state legislators signed off on issuing the grants, saying it must be used to serve children between the ages of 5-13, “as allowable by federal guidance.”
Two legal memorandums prepared by the attorney general’s office included in filings – one from Nov. 30 prior to Labrador’s inauguration and another from Jan. 25 after he assumed office – say IDHW “does not appear to violate federal and state guidelines.”
That’s because federal guidance “[emphasizes] enabling access to high-quality child care, without regard for age.” Grant recipients could serve children younger than five, but they must also offer programs to those ages 5-13 as outlined in the state legislation, according to the memos.
“The Department’s implementation of the CCDF program is consistent with federal and state guidelines,” according to the memos, whose author has had their name redacted.
Jeppesen also argues that Labrador lacks the legal authority to issue these civil investigative demands in this case.
Idaho law states the attorney general may issue these legal demands if they have “reason to believe that a person has engaged in, is engaging in, or is about to engage in any act or practice declared to be unlawful.”
Given the two memos authored by those within the attorney general’s office found no problems with the grants’ administration, Jeppesen says Labrador can’t meet that requirement.
“This is not a simple matter of an overbroad request for documents, it is a matter of government overreach,” the filing states.
The attorney general’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday morning.
Labrador’s office sent similar investigative demands to child care providers and public school districts that received these grants earlier in March, prompting a separate lawsuit filed last week.
Ultimately, taxpayers will be on the hook for these legal fees. It’s not immediately clear how much Jeppesen’s private representation has cost.