A group of education and child care providers from around the state, including some public school districts, have filed a court complaint against the Idaho attorney general’s office, seeking to block or modify the office’s demand for their records.
The plaintiffs include 35 Idaho-based providers that applied for and received federal grants through the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Community Partner Grant Program, which was intended for use in after-school programs to help reverse pandemic-related learning losses of school-aged children — defined as ages 5 through 13.
The providers received a demand for information and records last week from Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador’s office.
“Our (civil investigative demands) were issued to obtain facts about what happened and to determine whether state law was followed,” the AG’s office told KTVB in an email, according to the news station. “Our goal here is to provide full transparency to the people of Idaho.”
The complaint filed Wednesday against Labrador’s office says the demands sought “thousands or tens of thousands of documents within the unreasonably brief time of 20 days … making it virtually impossible for (the providers) to respond.”
The case may end up including as many as 80 education and child care providers, according to the complaint, filed Wednesday against Labrador and Lincoln Davis Wilson, his newly appointed chief of civil and constitutional defense.
“The attorney general has the authority to investigate these entities,” the AG’s office said in an emailed statement Wednesday evening. “We look forward to continuing our cooperative communications with some of the recipients, and we will zealously defend the powers the legislature has given us to ensure compliance with Idaho law.”
The office said its authority comes from Idaho statutes for consumer protection, charitable solicitations and nonprofit assets.
If someone doesn’t respond to a civil investigative demand, the attorney general can take a variety of legal actions.
The Office of the Idaho Attorney General has sent various child care and education providers a civil investigative demand to seek records as part of the attorney general’s investigation into how funds were used in a community grant program. This is the demand the AG’s office sent to Juliaetta Elementary School.
Under former Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, the AG’s office routinely sent out civil investigative demands several times per year — during an investigation into whether a person or business had broken laws that exist to protect Idahoans from deceptive trade practices and other harms.
In the past, the office sent such demands to small business owners, pharmacy chains, global corporations, the owners of off-campus university housing and others.
The demands often seek wide-ranging information about a business, its finances, employees and managers, customers and more.
In the complaint, child care providers say Labrador’s office seems to be sending out demands indiscriminately — not to specific providers but to “every” entity that received the grant funds in 2021 and 2022.
Statements to the court by the education and child care providers, obtained by the Idaho Capital Sun, say it would take them weeks to months of work at great expense to fulfill the attorney general’s demands.
“They absolutely have to have a reason to believe there is a legal justification” for investigating and that the people they’re sending the demands to either have, or know of, information about someone breaking the law, said Greg Cheney, a former Republican legislator who is representing the plaintiffs.
“It isn’t ‘everybody we hope has information,’” he said. “What is it that they’re investigating? And why do they believe the Basin School District (for example) has evidence of anybody’s wrongdoing? … They have to have a reason to believe that they have relevant evidence.”
The complaint argues that Labrador’s demands are “little more than a politically-motivated undertaking — without basis in fact or law — in reaction to a coordination with certain far-right politicos and purveyors of political entertainment.”
That may refer to the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s report that suggested grant funds intended for ages 5 through 13 went to programs that also educate children under age 5.
The Idaho Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee last month directed legislative auditors to conduct an audit of the grant program.
The complaint filed by grant recipients notes that guidance from the state said that providers who serve ages under 5 may still receive the funds, as long as they also serve ages 5 through 13.
Some child care and education providers, such as Montessori schools, serve a range of ages, from toddlers through 6-year-old kindergarteners, and beyond.
Under Idaho law, children can enter kindergarten in public school when they are 5 years old, as long as they turn 5 on or before Sept. 1 of that year. As a result, children who turn 5 after Sept. 1 may remain in preschool or child care programs until the next school year.
“What might be happening here is that the attorney general’s office isn’t a fan of the guidance the (Idaho Department of Health and Welfare) put out,” Cheney said. “But that doesn’t mean that people are out here breaking the law.”
The AG’s office is the law firm of the state of Idaho. Its attorneys represent the state, including the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
“As evidenced by the vote (by JFAC) to conduct a legislative audit of the Department’s administration of the Community Grant program, there may (be) some dispute between the Idaho Legislature and the Department” regarding the program, the complaint said.
If so, the information sought by the AG’s office is already in the state’s possession, and the schools and child care programs “are innocent non-combatants in that dispute,” it said.