Idaho AG at odds with Health and Welfare again. This time it’s over child protection.

Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador says he wants to review a child protection case that involved the grandson of one of his supporters.

The case was closed last year, but the child’s parents have taken first steps toward suing the state — and Labrador would be responsible for Idaho’s legal defense against such a lawsuit. The attorney general’s interest in the case has officials from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and the state’s liability insurance office concerned.

Labrador told the Idaho Capital Sun in an interview Wednesday that his motive is to represent the interests of Idahoans, some of whom are “concerned about what’s happening” with child protection in Idaho.

Child protection cases in Idaho require different agencies to work together. They involve Health and Welfare staff, local law enforcement officers, county prosecuting attorneys, judges, guardians ad litem, foster families and sometimes health care providers, mental health care workers and others. They also involve deputy attorneys general, who work for Labrador but are required to serve Health and Welfare as their client.

“We are looking at several cases,” Labrador said. “To see how Health and Welfare is handling all child protection cases, and to see if there’s anything that this office needs to do — to either train the lawyers or have the lawyers train Health and Welfare on the proper handling of these cases. And I’m not saying at all that they haven’t been handling (cases properly), I just don’t know. I want to get to the bottom of that.”

In some states and at the federal level, those kinds of reviews are often undertaken by an inspector general. Idaho doesn’t have an inspector general.

In some states and at the federal level, reviews can go through the legislative branch. Idaho has a Child Protection Legislative Oversight Committee, created by statute in 2018. Idaho also a legislative-branch mechanism for investigating Idaho’s government systems: the Office of Performance Evaluations. At the Idaho Legislature’s request, OPE produced reports on the state’s child protection system in 2017 and 2018:

Child protection case involves grandson of Labrador supporter

The child in one of the cases that caught Labrador’s attention is a grandson of Diego Rodriguez, who supported Labrador’s campaign for Idaho Attorney General. Rodriguez is a longtime supporter, having contributed $1,000 to Labrador’s congressional re-election campaign in 2013.

The child protection case in 2022 became the subject of protests by then-gubernatorial candidate Ammon Bundy’s supporters, including Rodriguez.

The protests caused a Boise hospital to go on lockdown. The protests, and public statements about the hospital, are now a central focus of a lawsuit against Bundy and Rodriguez by the hospital and health care providers who were targeted by protesters.

The family of the child filed a notice of “tort claim” against the state last fall — a step before filing a lawsuit against a government entity in Idaho.

Photo of court document that includes a portrait of Ammon Bundy and Diego Rodriguez and quotes from their statements
St. Luke’s Health System and its CEO and health care providers last year sued Ammon Bundy, left, and Diego Rodriguez, over statements they made about the hospital’s role in a child protection case involving Rodriguez’s grandson. (Photo of court document)

“I wanted to raise my concern for what I believe to be a conflict of interest inherent in a request from Attorney General Labrador,” Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen wrote in a Jan. 31 email to Idaho Gov. Brad Little’s director of cabinet affairs.

Jeppesen wrote that, before last year’s November election, Labrador met with Jeppesen “to get an overview of the Department of Health and Welfare.”

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During the meeting, Labrador asked Jeppesen about the child protection case involving Rodriguez’s grandchild “and indicated that he was a close personal friend of the family, in particular (Rodriguez),” Jeppesen wrote. “In addition, he went on to share his (belief) that the case was not handled correctly and expressed concerns about many aspects of the case including the (department’s) role.”

Shortly after taking office in January, Labrador asked the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare to give him “all the documents” in the child protection case, Jeppesen wrote.

Jeppesen reiterated his concerns in another email, to a deputy attorney general assigned to the department.

“I believe that this request from the AG for all department records is a conflict of interest since the AG is a close personal friend of the family,” he wrote. “And under normal procedures the AG provides a defense in civil suits. Is there a solution to both provide all the department files for this case that will eliminate the conflict of interest?”

This is the second dispute between Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador and his client, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, since he took office in January.

Health and Welfare last week took Labrador to court over a separate inquiry, related to federal grants for education and child care providers.

Private-sector attorneys hired to represent Health and Welfare officials in that matter wrote that Labrador “is creating an adversarial relationship with his own clients, is investigating without any statutory authority, without any probable cause, and despite a non-waivable conflict.”

Idaho law spells out the attorney general’s duties. They include: providing all legal services for the state, representing state entities in court and other legal settings, and providing legal advice to state officials and entities “in all matters involving questions of law.”

A deputy AG gave the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare a legal opinion — before and after Labrador took office — that how the department handled the federal grants raised “no concerns of statutory violations,” based on federal and state guidance.

But Labrador’s office recently launched an investigation into the grants — on concerns of statutory violations. Labrador demanded Health and Welfare provide records, emails and information.

Health and Welfare sued to block that demand, pointing out that Labrador’s office already determined there was no malfeasance by Health and Welfare. Labrador’s office said he was “never apprised of or consulted about this opinion, and he wouldn’t have signed it,” according to the Idaho Statesman.

Health and Welfare lawyers ‘in the middle of a disagreement’ about Labrador’s request

Records of a child protection case are almost always confidential under Idaho law.

Last September, the department denied a request by the Idaho Capital Sun for the child’s case file. The Sun argued for release of records based on the public interest in accusations by the child’s family against the department and other agencies.

The child’s mother also requested the case records from the department, in January of this year, and the department provided the records to her, according to an email from a deputy attorney general and Jeppesen.

But Labrador’s request for the case file, Jeppesen wrote, created a predicament for the department’s attorneys — who are employees of the AG’s office but are assigned to represent Health and Welfare. Those attorneys were put “in the middle of a disagreement between the department and their boss, the AG,” Jeppesen wrote in his Jan. 31 email to the governor’s office.

A few days later, an administrator from the office that fields legal claims against the state also emailed the governor’s office to ask for guidance.

“The Office of Risk Management was notified … of a tort claim filed by (the child) and parents. We have reviewed the information provided by the Department of Health and Welfare and have concluded that litigation is likely,” the administrator wrote. “Our usual procedure at this point would be to request assignment of counsel in cooperation with the Attorney General’s Office. It has come to our attention that the Attorney General reportedly has a personal relationship with the family of (the child). In cases of this type with similar circumstances a special deputy attorney general would be appointed. We want to both make you aware of the situation and request any advice you may have before we proceed with our request for outside counsel.”

The Office of Risk Management’s administrator then emailed the attorney general’s office, with a similar request for advice on what to do.

She noted that Rodriguez “is named as a witness” in the tort claim, meaning that Rodriguez could be part of a lawsuit against the state — a lawsuit that Labrador’s office would have to defend the state against.

“During my tenure, (the risk management office) has not encountered a similar situation and we are seeking your guidance on how we should proceed” with figuring out which attorney to handle Idaho’s defense against any impending lawsuit, she wrote.

The next day, Feb. 10, a deputy attorney general for Health and Welfare emailed Jeppesen to say she’d met with Labrador to talk about the concerns that he might have a conflict of interest.

That deputy attorney general, Chelsea Kidney, has since resigned from Labrador’s office, according to Idaho Statesman reporting. She is the 15th deputy to leave the office since Labrador was elected, according to an Idaho Capital Sun review of state employee records.

“When I met with AG Labrador, I presented your position regarding the ongoing concern of a potential conflict …” Kidney wrote in her Feb. 10 email to Jeppesen. “I mentioned that there are rules of professional conduct that speak to public sector (lawyers’) involvement in cases and have since cited Idaho Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.7 and 1.11 as support for this process.”

Those rules deal with conflicts of interest.

But Labrador and his advisors decided he has no conflict of interest, Kidney wrote.

“He further asserts that he is entitled to review these records in fulfilling his role as AG. He respectfully requests DHW fulfill his request,” she wrote.

Labrador said during his campaign for attorney general that he planned to change how the office is run.

He contrasted his approach to that of Lawrence Wasden, the incumbent attorney general, in an Idaho Public Television debate leading up to the Republican primary.

“He thinks his job is to represent the bureaucracy of Idaho,” Labrador said in the debate. “I believe the job of the attorney general is to represent the people of Idaho, to stand up for your rights, to stand up for your values, to stand up for the things that are important to you, and to make sure that we protect you from encroachment from the federal government and for from overreach from the state government.”

Labrador: Personal relationship, past financial support don’t affect legal review

Labrador told the Sun he hasn’t talked with the family involved in this case, and hasn’t asked them for a copy of the case file, in an effort to remain neutral. He said his relationship with Rodriguez is not a conflict of interest for him, and that he has many friends and acquaintances from his years in Idaho politics.

“If I can’t handle cases (involving) every person that I’m an acquaintance with, then I’m gonna have a difficult time being the attorney general of the state of Idaho,” he said.

He said Rodriguez’s campaign contributions a decade ago also don’t compromise his ability to represent Idaho in a potential lawsuit brought by Rodriguez’s family.

“Why would it? There’s no rule that disallows an attorney general or an attorney to look at an issue that deals with a campaign contributor,” he said.

“And if you think about it, over the years, the number of tort claims that are made against the state, there has to have been numerous cases where the sitting AG knows one of them. So to claim that this is unprecedented would seem a little bit preposterous to me,” Labrador said.

There have been cases where employees of the Idaho Office of Attorney General had a personal or professional conflict that kept them from working on a legal issue. As the Risk Management administrator said in her emails, the state has usually appointed a “special deputy” from outside the office to manage those cases.

Labrador said it is too early to know whether that would happen in the case involving Rodriguez’s grandson. But he and his advisers say he is committed to ethics and fairness.

“I’m just doing the job the people of Idaho elected me to do, and some people don’t want me to do that job,” Labrador said.

Editor’s note: This story has been edited to include a full quotation of Labrador’s comment on the duties of the attorney general as made during a Republican primary debate.