A member of the Idaho House wants to alter the composition of the board that governs the Idaho Department of Lands by removing the attorney general from it. And while another legislator has suggested that every member of the board should be removed, Idaho’s current attorney general, Lawrence Wasden, is defending his role in the midst of it all.
“I believe there is a conflict of interest with the attorney general both serving on the board and being the attorney for the board,” said Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa. He’s preparing to introduce legislation that would remove the attorney general from the board, replacing that position with the state treasurer. “I believe having the state treasurer on the board is a better match for the Land Board, since that individual is in charge of investing and borrowing for the state,” he told IdahoReporter.com.
In recent years the IDL board has come under criticism for using funds derived from the sale of public lands to buy and operate commercial properties. Critics worry that the IDL is competing against the private sector, while local government authorities complain that private properties acquired by the IDL deplete city and county government of tax revenues because property acquired by the IDL is no longer taxed.
Wasden has fallen under particular scrutiny and criticism for recent actions he has undertaken on the board. As a trustee for the IDL, Wasden has a vote in IDL’s undertakings, but he also serves as the agency’s legal counsel—all the while he is entrusted to uphold Idaho law in his role as the attorney general.
Vander Woude believes that there was a conflict of interest back in 2010 when Wasden sued the IDL to prevent the department’s plans for some IDl-owned cabin sights in Priest Lake. Wasden, along with former IDL board member Donna Jones (the former state controller) voted against the plan, whereas the other three IDL board members—Gov. Butch Otter, Secretary of State Ben Ysursa and State Superintendent of Education Tom Luna—voted in favor of it.
Wasden stated at the time that, in his view, the rents established for the cabins sites were too low. Vander Woude argues that in suing the IDL Wasden was, in a sense, suing himself because as a trustee, Wasden is a part of the IDL.
Additionally, Rep. Grant Burgoyne , D-Boise, said that as the attorney representing the IDL, Wasden was suing his own client. “It seems contradictory for the attorney general to be on the Land Board, give it legal advice and sue the board all at the same time,” Burgoyne told IdahoReporter.com.
Wasden defends both the Land Board’s decisions to purchase and operate commercial properties and his actions in suing the board. Citing language in the constitution that he says requires endowment lands to be managed “in such manner as will secure the maximum long term financial return to the institution to which granted,” Wasden told IdahoReporter.com that “there is no doubt that the founders intended for the IDL to be in business. Our constitution says this and our high court reaffirmed that position.”
As for accusations that he sued both himself and his client, Wasden admits that his actions in the 2010 case were outside the normal parameters of legal ethics, but noted that in some cases, government attorneys are placed in situations where they have to do such things. “My situation is one of those,” he said. “The way the board is set up in the constitution, the attorney general wears a lot of hats.” Wasden maintains that fulfilling those multiple roles is a part of his constitutional duty as the attorney general, adding that, according to both the constitution and the Idaho Rules of Ethics, there is no conflict with the attorney general fulfilling those roles.
With the lawsuit he brought in the Priest Lake case, Wasden said “I selected an outside attorney who, in turn, advised the other IDL board members on how to select legal counsel. I went out of my way to separate myself from their side of the case, while making sure they had the resources they needed, and my office paid for it all.”
As for proposals to change the composition of the Land Board, Wasden said “that is a perfectly legitimate public policy discussion to have. If you don’t like what the constitution says, you have to change that. But I have to uphold the constitution, and my constitutional duties through all of this.”
Vander Woude said if his bill passes the House and Senate with at least two-thirds support, a ballot question would then go to Idaho voters to allow the constitution to be amended to replace the attorney general with the treasurer on the board.
Burgoyne says he is uncertain whether he would support Vander Woude’s proposal, noting that he would prefer that the entire board be replaced with a “professional, nonpolitical” board appointed by the governor and approved by Senate confirmation.