Idaho state Judical Branch exempted from contract rules, PR firm benefits

IFF Government Waste

A public relations firm has been paid more than $200,000 since 2003 by the Idaho Judicial Branch, which is exempt from state rules that would require the deal to go out to bid. According to public records obtained by the Idaho Freedom Foundation, the Gallatin Public Affairs (formerly known as the Gallatin Group) has received $25,000 a year for the last eight years.

Patti Tobias, administrator for the Idaho Supreme Court, said the annual contracts were for public information services provided by Gallatin. “Reports about court caseloads, court services, and new innovations are regularly published,” said Tobias. “Every effort is made to encourage accurate coverage of the Idaho Courts and to inform Idahoans of important court trends, services, and programs.”

She said the annual cost for a Public Information Officer (PIO) would be $109,206 in salary and benefits, and an assistant PIO would cost the judiciary $74,418. Therefore, Tobias said it’s much more financially prudent to hire a public relations firm to provide “management of editorial content and production of annual reports, speeches and presentation materials, preparation and distribution of court-related news releases, and communications advice and counsel to the court and its administrative staff.”

When asked why Gallatin Public Affairs has received the contract for the last eight years, Tobias simply said, “We have been well satisfied with their services.”

The judicial branch is not violating any statutes or rules by awarding the contract every year to Gallatin Public Affairs. Idaho Department of Administration Division of Purchasing rule 38.05.01.044.07 requires agencies to solicit bids for annual contracts between $5,000 and $75,000. Anything less than that amount, agencies are allowed to use their best judgment, and for annual contracts over $75,000, agencies are required to put out a Request for Proposals (RFP). However, the Division of Purchasing doesn’t oversee the Idaho Judicial Branch.

Furthermore, Idaho State Code 67-5716 exempts a number of state government entities from the bidding process, the Judicial Branch among them:

14) Agency. All officers, departments, divisions, bureaus, boards, commissions and institutions of the state, including the public utilities commission, but excluding other legislative and judicial branches of government (emphasis ours), and excluding the governor, the lieutenant governor, the secretary of state, the state controller, the state treasurer, the attorney general, and the superintendent of public instruction, and, as provided in section 67-5728, Idaho Code, excluding Lewis-Clark State College, Idaho State University, Boise State University and Eastern Idaho Technical College.

So the Judicial Branch is legally free to award contracts to whomever it sees fit, provided it’s done “in accordance with good business practice and in the best interest of the state.” Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, questions why the judiciary needs to contract with a public relations firm in the first place. “If they need to issue a press release, why can’t they just do it from the administrator’s office?” he said. “Why do they need to spend that money in the first place, instead of just issuing a press release if they need to?” Luker is a practicing attorney, and a member of the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee.

He understands why the judicial branch would keep contracting with Gallatin Public Affairs if the firm is providing good service. But he’s not comfortable with the judicial branch not having to go through the same bidding process as other state agencies. “From a taxpayer viewpoint, why should the judiciary be exempted from competitive bidding?” he asked.