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OPINION: Labrador encounters conflict of interest situations as he takes office

by JIM JONES/Guest Opinion
| January 13, 2023 1:00 AM

It did not take long for newly elected Idaho Attorney General Raul Labrador to be confronted by two troubling conflict of interest situations. He mishandled the first case and will soon have to act on the second. The two cases will give Idahoans a flavor of the manner in which he will operate the AG office during his tenure.

During his first week as AG, Labrador moved to dismiss a misdemeanor trespassing charge against Sara Brady, a prominent supporter of his campaign. Brady was charged with trespassing by the city of Meridian for allegedly refusing to leave a playground the city had closed to curb the spread of COVID-19. Because the city’s contract prosecutor had a conflict of interest concern, the AG’s office agreed to handle the prosecution.

Labrador’s office presented some feeble grounds to justify the dismissal, but there was certainly enough evidence for a jury to convict Brady. The elements of the charge were documented on video. Brady had unsuccessfully sought dismissal of the charge in lengthy court proceedings. Fortuitously for Brady, the trial was scheduled for after the change of administration, partly because of COVID and partly because of delays occasioned by Brady’s attorneys.

City officials were caught off guard by the dismissal. Meridian Mayor Roger Simison said Labrador’s “apparent philosophy to selectively dismiss cases of his choosing and endorse illegal behavior is abhorrent.” Police Chief Tracy Basterrechia expressed concern about the appearance of “political grandstanding.”

Labrador had a clear conflict in handling the case because of Brady’s prominent support for his election and because of his widely publicized opposition to COVID restrictions during the last two years. He should have advised the city of his conflict and its need to secure other prosecution counsel, instead of unilaterally seeking to dismiss the charge.

An equally troubling decision awaits action by Labrador in a Bonneville County court case. Idaho Falls lawyers Bryan Smith and Bryan Zollinger filed suit against an individual to collect a $777 medical debt. The defendant, David Lyon, claimed the suit violated Idaho’s Patient Protection Act (Act), which is designed to curb debt collection abuses for medical indebtedness. The attorneys, whose abusive practices caused Melaleuca CEO Frank VanderSloot to propose the Act, then challenged the constitutionality of the Act in the lawsuit. They were able to get a ruling in their favor on some of their constitutional claims.

Upon learning of the ruling, former Attorney General Wasden filed a motion to intervene in the action, claiming the Act was constitutional and that the debt-collecting lawyers had failed to comply with a statute requiring notification of their constitutional challenge.

Wasden sought to join the action in order to uphold the constitutionality of the Act. A hearing on the motion is set for February, unless Labrador decides to withdraw it.

The case puts Labrador smack dab on the horns of a dilemma. Smith and Zollinger are big wheels in the far-right Bonneville County GOP. Smith is vice chair of the Idaho Freedom Foundation. The lawyers greatly benefited from excessive attorney fee awards in medical debt cases before the Act went into effect and would love to have the judge’s ruling remain in effect. VanderSloot, on the other hand, has no use for these lawyers who prey on medical debtors and is dedicated to keeping the Act intact. He is also a major contributor to GOP candidates, having given $15,000 to Labrador in the general election.

VanderSloot claimed that Smith and Zollinger worked with Lyon to present a test case to the court in hopes of overturning the Act. In a recent story in the East Idaho News, he points to past relationships between the lawyers and the defendant. Taking his claims at face value, there do appear to be valid concerns as to whether the suit was set up as a vehicle to cripple the Act. It is fairly unusual to file a 47-page brief in Magistrate Court to challenge the constitutionality of a statute when the amount in question is only $777.

If Labrador drops the motion to uphold the Act, it will be a sign that having the support of extremist Republicans is more important to him than standing up for the law and for the interests of people plagued by abusive medical debt collectors.

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Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served eight years as Idaho Attorney General and 12 years as a justice on the Idaho Supreme Court. He is a regular columnist for The Hill online news. He blogs at JJCommonTater.com.

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