Judge orders Labrador to pay State Board of Education over $240,000 in open meetings case

By LAURA GUIDO

From the Idaho Press

A judge is ordering Attorney General Raúl Labrador to pay more than $242,700 in costs and attorney fees over his unsuccessful lawsuit against the State Board of Education.

Labrador had filed the case against the State Board, which also acts as the University of Idaho’s board of regents, alleging an Open Meetings Law violation in regards to the board’s closed-door meetings held ahead of the public vote to start the process of purchasing the University of Phoenix.

Ada County District Court Judge Jason Scott ordered Labrador’s office to pay $233,362.87 in attorney fees and $9,363.15 in costs in his order filed Tuesday.

“This unnecessary and unsuccessful lawsuit by the Attorney General against his own client took an enormous amount of time and resulted in a large cost to taxpayers,” the State Board wrote in an emailed statement. “The State Board is grateful to be vindicated by the Court once again. Although the Attorney General must pay those costs from his budget, it is profoundly unfortunate that taxpayers ultimately must bear the cost of this frivolous litigation.”

Labrador’s office did not agree with the decision and said in a written statement, “We disagree with the decision and expect to prevail on appeal. At the end of the day, this attorneys’ fees decision will not matter.”

Labrador has appealed the case, and the Idaho Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments June 13.

Scott determined the fees requested were reasonable and that the State Board was legally entitled to them; however, he reduced the award by $39,907.50 from what was requested because of heavily redacted billing entries from the State Board’s attorneys at Gjording Fouser. He wrote that the redactions prevented the court from being able to fully determine what work was done if it was reasonable.

“By heavily redacting its billing entries, Gjording Fouser has effectively prevented an award of attorney fees in full measure,” the judge wrote.

He rejected Labrador’s argument that hiring multiple lawyers to work on the case was duplicative or unnecessary given the nature of the case.

“This case presented novel questions of law, was fiercely litigated (by both sides), and was, based on its unique circumstances, expedited, justifying involving more than one lawyer in depositions and hearings,” Scott said.

He partially agreed with an argument made by Labrador that some of the paralegal fees were for clerical work that aren’t compensable under the law, so Scott reduced $913 from some of the requested paralegal billings.

The case revolved around whether the early negotiations conducted in closed-door executive sessions were in compliance with Idaho’s Open Meetings Law.

There are narrow exceptions to rules requiring government business being conducted in public, and the State Board used the exemption for “preliminary negotiations involving matters of trade or commerce in which the governing body is in competition with governing bodies in other states or nations.”

Labrador’s office contended that the last executive session, held on May 15, 2023, and just three days before the final decision, wouldn’t be considered “preliminary” and also argued that there wasn’t competition “with governing bodies in other states or nations,” because by then, the University of Arkansas had publicly withdrawn its bid to purchase the online school.

There was a three-day trial, after which the judge dismissed the case with prejudice in late January.

The State Board’s decision to create a nonprofit entity to go out for a bond in order to pay around $685 million for the online university is still facing hurdles. This session, legal opinions sought by lawmakers found that the State Board and university may have lacked authority to create the nonprofit entity, which contradicted the University of Idaho’s attorneys’ opinions.

A bill meant to ease some of the concerns was introduced this week and would instead create an independent politic and corporate body to go for the bond and oversee the University of Phoenix and add more input by the Legislature.

A Senate committee approved the bill, but it still awaits votes from the full Senate and House.

From the Idaho Press

Not an IDOG member yet?