Idaho Lt. Gov. blames public records mess on press, lawyers
AMMON (AP) — Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin held a news conference Thursday to defend her decision to refuse to release public records until she lost a lawsuit over the matter, criticizing the Idaho Attorney General's office and accusing several news organizations of lying in their coverage of the civil case.
Her remarks at an elementary school in Ammon included campaign talk that may have violated a state law against campaigning on public school grounds.
McGeachin held the event with Republican Attorney General candidate Art Macomber, of Coeur d'Alene, saying she wanted to "set the record straight" regarding the lawsuit from the Idaho Press Club. She refused to take any questions.
"I know the media is very busy writing lies about me and my office," she said.
The Idaho Press Club sued McGeachin in July after several journalists said she wrongly denied public record requests for materials relating to her new Education Task Force. The task force was ordered to investigate allegations of "indoctrination" in the state's public school system, something McGeachin said was necessary to "protect our young people from the scourge of critical race theory, socialism, communism and Marxism."
The journalists — Audrey Dutton and Clark Corbin with the Idaho Capital Sun, Blake Jones with Idaho Education News and Hayat Norimine with the Idaho Statesman — requested public feedback forms and other documents.
The lieutenant governor lost the lawsuit, and Fourth District Judge Steven Hippler ordered her to release the documents, saying McGeachin acted in "bad faith" in denying the record requests. He also ordered her to pay the Idaho Press Club's legal fees.
But McGeachin didn't immediately release the materials, and asked the judge to reconsider. At the end of September, with journalists still awaiting the documents, the Idaho Press Club asked the judge to hold McGeachin in contempt of court and order her to be detained in jail until she turned over the public records. The judge denied McGeachin's request for reconsideration the following day, and McGeachin's office released the records a short time later — prompting the Idaho Press Club to drop its request that she be held in contempt of court.
Thursday, McGeachin maintained she would have released the documents after redacting names of people who submitted public comments.
"I was trying to protect parents, teachers and students and students who were blowing the whistle at some of the things that were happening in their communities," McGeachin said.
The vast majority of the public comments were from people who said the task force was not needed and who called the allegations of "indoctrination" baseless and unfounded.
McGeachin also accused news outlets including The Associated Press of mischaracterizing the contempt of court request.
"The characterization of me being in contempt of court are factually inaccurate. No judge ever ordered me in contempt," she said.
The Associated Press accurately reported that the Idaho Press Club requested that the lieutenant governor be held in contempt of court. Neither McGeachin nor her representatives have contacted the AP to request a correction, and McGeachin has repeatedly ignored requests for comment from the AP.
McGeachin and Macomber also took aim at the Idaho Attorney General's office, saying its bad legal advice led to the public records dust-up. Macomber followed those accusations with a campaign pitch for his election to the AG's office. A provision of the state Public Integrity in Elections Act passed in 2018 says it is against policy to use public funds, resources or property to advocate for or against a candidate.
The Attorney General's Office disputed Macomber's account of its legal involvement.
Idaho Attorney General Spokesman Scott Graf said in a statement that the office "of the Attorney General offered its final legal counsel on this matter to the lieutenant governor on June 7, 2021. Following that communication, the lieutenant governor made an independent decision to seek outside representation. Then — approximately six weeks after our final counsel — the Idaho Press Club filed its lawsuit."
The lawsuit, McGeachin's court loss and "the subsequent financial burden Idaho taxpayers now face all resulted from independent decisions made by the lieutenant governor in consultation with her chosen attorney after June 7," Graf wrote. "This entire matter is an excellent demonstration of why government should seek legal counsel that it needs to hear instead of what it wants to hear."
Earlier this month McGeachin requested an additional $50,000 in taxpayer money to cover what she called "unforeseen legal bills" related to the lawsuit.
"To suggest that I'm someone to take advantage of the taxpayer is a gross misrepresentation," McGeachin said.
Bonneville Joint School District 93 Superintendent Scott Woolstenhulme said in a Wednesday email to the Post Register he was unaware McGeachin was holding a news conference at the school.
"No one from the Lieutenant Governor's office has contacted the principal or district administration about using Ammon Elementary for any event," Woolstenhulme said. "The principal at Ammon told me that a parent at his school had asked to use the auditorium for a meeting, but did not disclose the purpose of the meeting."