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The people’s lawyer? Raúl Labrador term marked by conflict with officials, employees

Nearly half a year into Raúl Labrador’s first term as Idaho attorney general, the former lawmaker and GOP party leader has made good on his campaign promise to overhaul the state attorney’s office.

Labrador’s campaign message, that he would be a more “aggressive” attorney general, resonated with Republican voters, who delivered him resounding election victories. And he’s taken electoral success as a mandate.

In his first 100 days, Labrador dropped criminal charges against an anti-vaccine activist who defied COVID-19 public health measures; won an injunction against federal water pollution regulations; shepherded a new method for public executions; and triggered an unprecedented court battle with a state agency over child care grants.

Meanwhile, former Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, who served five terms under the mantra that he called “balls and strikes” fairly when it came to the law, remains a frequent target of ridicule for Labrador. Voters last year showed that they “overwhelmingly wanted a more aggressive, more conservative attorney general,” Labrador told the Idaho Statesman in his Capitol office.

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“They always felt that the Office of Attorney General was taking the side of bureaucrats instead of the side of the people,” Labrador said. “We’ve been really reinforcing the fact that our role is to stand up for the Constitution and stand up for the law.”

But among the more than 200 employees working for Labrador — most of them carryovers from Wasden’s administration — some resisted the new direction. Interviews with former employees and records obtained by the Statesman through public records requests revealed accusations that Labrador and his aides are leading through intimidation, neglecting their duties and defying ethical rules.

“Your lack of respect for the law and those attorneys still working in this office is shocking,” Madison Miles, a former lead deputy attorney general in the Health and Human Services division, who resigned this month, wrote in a letter to Labrador. “You have encouraged attorneys, including myself, to violate our professional ethics to pledge our loyalty to you over representation of our clients.”

Labrador returns to law after years in Congress

Labrador told the Statesman in April that his first 100 days were busy. He touted the office’s successful litigation in federal court and his procurement of additional funding for prosecuting crimes against children.

The office’s Internet Crimes Against Children Unit has seen a tenfold increase in case referrals since it was established in 2013, according to a letter Labrador sent to lawmakers requesting additional funding. The Legislature approved the request for four additional investigator positions, and Labrador reassigned two prosecutors to the unit, which has made “a world of difference,” he said.

“We had a lot of work to do,” he said. “We made some major changes to the office, which I think were necessary because of having the same attorney general in this office for 20 years, and really, a culture of 30 years doing the same thing. So it’s always good to change an organization.”

Labrador said he’s enjoying being a lawyer again and talking through complex legal issues, something he missed while in Congress.

“I love law, I love policy and I love politics, and this is a job that allows me to do all three,” he said. “That’s why I’ve so thoroughly enjoyed it.”

Labrador was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in Las Vegas. A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he attended Brigham Young University and received a law degree from the University of Washington.

After establishing a private law firm in the Treasure Valley in 2000, Labrador served two terms in the Idaho House before running for Congress. As a federal lawmaker, Labrador associated with the Tea Party movement and later was a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, which was created in 2015 to push House leadership toward a more conservative agenda.

Labrador said he fondly remembers debates among the Freedom Caucus about immigration, crime and the national debt. He gained a reputation as a budget hawk and was an outspoken critic of President Barack Obama, including advocating for a repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

He also was a member of a bipartisan group of lawmakers that sought immigration reform — known as the “Gang of Eight” — but he later abandoned the group when its negotiated proposal didn’t sufficiently protect taxpayers from having to support health care costs for undocumented immigrants.

Labrador, who previously practiced immigration law, is Idaho’s first Hispanic attorney general. Labrador said his ethnicity was “not a big deal” to voters.

“The people of Idaho did not vote for me because I was Hispanic,” he said. “They voted for me because they thought I was the best candidate for the job. The fact that I am Hispanic, I have a Hispanic name and I have a little bit of an accent makes absolutely no difference to the majority of Idahoans.”

In 2018, Labrador gave up his House seat to run for governor and lost to Gov. Brad Little in a three-way GOP primary contest. The following year, the Idaho Republican Party elected Labrador chairman.

Labrador’s opponents in last year’s elections warned that he sought to make the attorney general’s office a partisan arm of the state, while Labrador argued that the office needed a more aggressive leader who was willing to work within the “political system” to “be persuasive.”

Labrador declined to say where he stands within the fractured state party, which has become increasingly divided over issues like COVID-19, abortion and elections.

“I don’t talk too much about the state party because I don’t deal with the state party,” Labrador said. “I don’t think anybody misunderstands what my politics are, and I think everybody knows the things that I believe in.”

Labrador hasn’t shied away from opining on the state’s high-profile political battles since taking office. He criticized the Caldwell School Board for considering a policy that would allow transgender students to use their preferred bathroom, and he urged the passage of House Bill 71, which makes it a crime to provide gender-affirming health care to transgender minors.

He’s also taken a strong stance on the state’s abortion ban, interpreting the law to mean that doctors can’t refer their patients to states where the procedure is legal. Labrador later rescinded the legal opinion — which attracted a lawsuit from two Idaho doctors — but hasn’t disavowed it.

In 2021, Labrador was appointed to the oversight board for Central District Health, the regional agency that provides health care education and services. On the health board, Labrador pushed through a policy prohibiting the district from recommending that people wear masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He also accused unelected government health officials of “coercion” when it came to recommending vaccination against the virus and chastised politicians and the media for “exploiting” the COVID-19 crisis.

The state’s response to the pandemic was a tenet of Labrador’s campaign against Wasden. He bashed the former attorney general for his legal defense of Little’s emergency powers. Idaho’s COVID-19 restrictions were limited compared to other states. It never had a statewide mask mandate and saw a quick economic recovery following a lock down that lasted a little more than a month.

“We had an attorney general who was unwilling to stand up to the governor, who just became a ‘yes-man’ to the governor when the governor was doing things that were probably unconstitutional,” Labrador said during a televised debate last year.

Labrador’s critics, including longtime rival Bob Kustra, former president of Boise State University, have speculated that Labrador will make a move on the governor’s office in 2026. Labrador said he doesn’t know what he’ll do after his first term, and he’s not thinking about it.

“I don’t worry about what the next step is going to be,” he said. “Other people, for some reason, spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about what I’m going to do in the next four years.”

It’s no secret that Little and Labrador are political rivals. But the tension between the two leaders largely has been shielded from public view since Labrador took office. The two disagreed on legal strategy for a federal lawsuit, and Labrador has lobbed verbal attacks at the agencies that Little oversees. Lawyers in each office also had a small spat over who would fund private legal fees for the Department of Health and Welfare’s lawsuit against Labrador’s office, court records showed.

“We’re not best friends, but we work well together,” Labrador said of the governor. “I don’t think there’s any real problems. They get to hear from us when we disagree, and we hear from them when they disagree. And I try to keep those disagreements as private as possible.”

The governor’s office declined to comment for this story.

‘Not here to play footsies with agencies’

Restoring the office of solicitor general has been the most significant change in the new administration, Labrador told the Statesman.

Solicitor General Theo Wold, once a Justice Department attorney under former President Donald Trump, is tasked with using the courts to fight potential overreach by President Joe Biden’s administration and advance the state’s interest on other political issues, like religious freedom and abortion.

Wold previously was a staff attorney for U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and served as a fellow with the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life, a nonprofit that seeks to liberate “America’s mind and institutions from woke rule.”

Since January, when Labrador took office, Idaho has joined multistate lawsuits defending firearm manufacturers, states’ rights to restrict abortion, businesses denying services to LGBTQ+ customers and restrictions on transgender student-athletes.

Involving the state in national political issues isn’t new for the Idaho attorney general. During Wasden’s last few years in office, he joined lawsuits challenging Biden’s policies on immigration, LGBTQ+ discrimination protections and COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

What’s changed under Labrador’s leadership is the level of collaboration with state agencies and the attorneys assigned to represent them. Labrador has been less inclined to work with departments. He said that he alone was elected to pursue the state’s interests in court and believes state officials misunderstand the attorney general’s relationship with agency clients.

“We’re not here to play footsies with agencies,” Labrador said. “We’re here to actually explain to them what the Legislature has told them that they can and they cannot do.”

The attorney general has a “dual role” under the law, Labrador said. Statute says he’s the lawyer for state agencies, but the Idaho Constitution says he’s the attorney for “the people of Idaho,” he said. In practice, this means the attorney general’s office will favor the Legislature — “the voice of the people,” Labrador said — when there’s disagreement on legal interpretation.

“It’s not just a theoretical question,” said Wold, who typically joins Labrador in conversations with the press. “When we say ‘the state of Idaho’ the constitution of the state is clear who constitutes the state. It’s not the corporate agencies and executive bodies of the government. It’s the people.”

During this year’s legislative session, lawmakers stymied the attorney general’s budget amid complaints that they weren’t receiving adequate legal analysis on proposed bills. A handful of hard-right lawmakers — including Reps. Bruce Skaug, R-Nampa, and Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot — said during a House debate that they’ve had no trouble getting help from Labrador’s office.

”Many legislators were saying they couldn’t get timely opinions, and the only ones who were speaking up, saying that they could, were the ones who were tightly affiliated with that particular branch of the Republican Party,” House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, told the Statesman by phone.

Meanwhile, state officials have been surprised by attorney general actions that affect their agencies. The Statesman previously reported that Idaho Department of Correction officials were unaware that Labrador helped craft a bill to execute prisoners by firing squad, a process IDOC would have to implement.

The director of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality was surprised when Labrador chose to join a Texas lawsuit to block expanded water pollution regulations, instead of a North Dakota lawsuit that the DEQ director and the governor preferred. Both lawsuits led to injunctions on the regulations, but the Texas decision came a couple of weeks earlier.

“Some people in Idaho disagreed with that decision, because they were used to telling the attorney general how to do things,” Labrador said.

Former employees question Labrador’s ethics

Labrador’s new direction for the office was tested within his first two months, when he opened the investigation into Department of Health and Welfare officials over their distribution of federal child care grants.

The attorney general’s office demanded that Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen and two other health officials hand over records related to child care grants, after state legislators raised concerns that the funds weren’t distributed according to their instructions.

“The statutes are passed by the Legislature, the regulations are approved by the Legislature,” Labrador said. “Whatever those statutes and regulations say, that’s what the Department of Health and Welfare should be doing.”

Six attorneys assigned to represent the department have since quit or been fired, according to employment records and email correspondence the Statesman obtained through public records requests.

Miles and Daphne Huang, also a former lead attorney in the health division, accused Labrador and his aides of unethical conduct by urging attorneys to side with him, and against their Health and Welfare clients, according to the records. Idaho State Bar ethical rules prohibit attorneys from advocating against their clients’ interests. Miles, a deputy attorney general since 2018, also accused Labrador of using “intimidation and bullying” tactics to exert power over subordinates.

“I am deeply saddened to leave this role, this division, and this agency client, but I can no longer be associated with your blatant attempt to provide subpar and even unethical representation to the Department of Health and Welfare,” Miles wrote in her resignation letter. “Your political aspirations have clearly taken precedence over your ethical responsibilities to agency clients.”

Labrador said in an emailed statement that the accusations of unethical conduct, bullying and intimidation are “absurd and patently false.” He also noted that Miles has since taken a job with a law firm that supported Wasden in the primary election.

“After 20 years of stagnation, the Office of Attorney General is being rebooted, modernized and revitalized,” Labrador said in the emailed statement. “Unfortunately, a small number of lawyers have been unwilling to get on board with a new mission: serving the people of Idaho, not the bureaucracy. If this new mission is difficult for any to follow, they are welcome to find employment elsewhere.”

In November, Huang, who had worked in the office since 2012, wrote an opinion that found the health department’s distribution of the grants was legally sound, and she issued the opinion again in January. Providing the opinion to the department was “routine” work for her client, Huang said, according to emails obtained by the Statesman.

Former Chief Deputy Attorney General David Dewhirst on March 29 asked for Huang’s resignation after accusing her of providing “legal cover” for the health agency’s “potentially unlawful activities,” according to the emails. Huang refused to resign and was later fired, according to the emails and employment records. Dewhirst has since left the office for a position with presidential candidate and Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

After sending investigative demands to the Health and Welfare officials, top attorney general officials blocked the attorneys who represent the department from providing legal advice about the investigation, according to court documents. The health officials hired private attorneys, seeking to block the investigative demands. The lawsuit is ongoing.

Shortly before her firing, records obtained by the Statesman showed that Huang wrote a letter to Tom Donovan, who had recently been appointed chief of the health division, after former chief Chelsea Kidney was forced to resign for overseeing the legal opinion. Huang wrote that Labrador and his aides have “presented an untenable conflict of interest” without concern for “our ethical responsibilities.”

“They instead appear intent on dismantling government, and doing so without regard for the people who believe in public service who fall in their wake,” she wrote.

Miles, Huang and Kidney declined to comment on their departures. Huang and Kidney have since taken temporary jobs within the Department of Health and Welfare. Their work does not involve providing legal advice, department spokesperson Niki Forbing-Orr said by email.

The child care grant investigation isn’t the only time Labrador’s ethics have been called into question.

Critics said Labrador should have declared conflicts when he dropped charges against Sara Walton Brady, a campaign supporter, and when Labrador sought files on child protection cases, including a file on Diego Rodriguez’s grandson. Labrador described Rodriguez as a close friend, the Idaho Capital Sun reported. Labrador told the Statesman he requested all of the state’s child protection files, and “one of them was that particular file.”

In a follow-up interview, Labrador said he hasn’t violated a single ethical rule and the “vast majority” of his employees are “very happy” in their jobs and “ecstatic” about the changes in the office.

“I want government to function correctly,” Labrador said. “These people are used to not having to follow rules, not having to follow the law, not having to follow regulations.”

Attorneys in Labrador’s office resign

Shortly after taking office, Labrador directed staff carrying over from Wasden’s office to write “letters of continuing interest” to ensure their priorities aligned with his vision. The office issued a news release about the letters but denied a request from the Statesman to review the responses, citing a personnel exemption in public records law.

“I’m looking for really smart people that are really good lawyers that understand that their No. 1 responsibility is to represent the people of Idaho,” Labrador said. “I want them to be aggressive, and I want them to be good and enjoy the job that they do.”

Labrador also convened an advisory committee to conduct an agency-wide evaluation of the office, including interviews with all staff members. Labrador appointed as co-chairmen of the committee former Idaho Attorney General David Leroy, who supported Labrador’s campaign, and former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, a Trump ally who made an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate last year.

Leroy previously told the Statesman that he doesn’t know whether past attorneys general required employees to submit interest letters during a transitional period, but he thought it was a good idea.

“I think such a process, coupled with an interview process, could probably be a very useful dialogue for both the lawyer and the office,” Leroy said by phone.

This month’s interviews with the Health and Human Services division were the last in the process, which is close to wrapping up, Wold said.

“No one has been fired as a product of these interviews,” Wold said.

He said interviews led to some employees receiving new resources they had wanted for years, such as training or new software. The additional funding for the Internet Crimes Against Children unit was spurred by interviews with attorneys in the office’s criminal division, Labrador said.

But two former deputy attorneys general, who spoke to the Statesman on condition of anonymity citing a fear of retribution, described low morale among lawyers amid the transition. Many have left already, or are considering leaving, while others fear that they’ll be fired for disagreeing with Labrador, they said.

“I worry about the people who work there,” one said. “He lost a lot of expertise.”

In less than six months, 33 employees — 26 of them attorneys — have left their jobs at the attorney general’s office, according to data from the Idaho Department of Human Resources.

In fiscal year 2022, under Wasden, 34 employees departed over 12 months. In the previous fiscal year, Wasden had 25 departures. Since July, less than two months after Labrador won the GOP primary, the office has had a 25% turnover rate. That’s compared to 16% and 12% the previous two years.

Labrador said turnover is typical for a new administration and likely a byproduct of low salaries compared to other employers in the legal field. Salary data collected by the attorney general’s office shows its pay is comparable to other public employers, but salaries for attorneys with significant experience are lagging behind the city of Boise and Ada County. The Legislature this year approved 8% raises for attorney general staff.

“There’s a lot of loud people that are leaving, but it’s not unusual for that number of people to be leaving,” Labrador said.

Looking ahead, Labrador said he hopes to continue reforming the office in his vision and hopes his employees enjoy their jobs.

“We want them to be lawyers, not policymakers,” he said. “When the law and the regulations that are passed by the state conflict with whatever the bureaucracy wants, whatever the government employee wants, it’s their role and responsibility to tell that bureaucrat, ‘You can’t do that.’ ”