Attacks Mount over Sweetheart Broadband Deal 

"Will Idahoans tolerate such blatant corruption and backroom illegal deals with the taxpayer expected to pay all the bills?"

Some Idaho conservatives are mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore. That might not sound unusual, but this time the target is the Idaho Republican Party's top elected official, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter; his longtime business partner and former Director of Administration Mark Gwartney; and anyone else involved in the jettisoning of Syringa Networks from the $60 million contract to run the Idaho Education Network.

Controversy over the contract erupted five years ago, when Gwartney cut Syringa from the deal and replaced it with Qwest--now CenturyLink--despite an independent advisory panel's choice of Syringa as the highest-rated, lowest-cost technology provider for the network, which connects Idaho schools with broadband Internet.

Syringa's original partner, Education Networks of America, was retained in the deal, but it was later made public that two of ENA's chief Idaho staffers had ties to outgoing Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna.

In early November, a 4th District Court judge ruled the state broke the law when it altered the contract and voided the deal. In the meantime, Idaho has spent nearly $1 million defending itself in a lawsuit brought by Syringa, as well as shelled out more than $11 million to cover funds withheld by the federal government during the investigation. A further $13 million may also have to be paid back to the federal government in the wake of the contract being voided.

While the 2014 Legislature approved some extended funding for IEN (through February 2015), all bets are off once the 2015 session convenes in January. Not only might IEN's future hang in the balance, but a push is on to hold the architects of the deal accountable for their actions.

According to an email sent Nov. 19 to members of the Tax Accountability Committee, and obtained by Boise Weekly, there is an effort afoot to see a joint resolution passed in the Legislature requesting the Idaho attorney general empanel a grand jury to investigate "potential criminal conduct and to determine whether criminal charges should be brought."

Boise attorney John Runft, a board member of the nonprofit TAC, confirmed that such a proposal exists but has not been voted on. In the email, Runft wrote that "any attempt to thwart responsibility through 'deals' in the civil resolution and likely settlement of this matter should not be allowed to successfully circumvent possible criminal conduct."

The TAC, a nonprofit established in March and based in Nampa, makes it a mission of "fostering and promoting the responsible, constitutional and conservative use" of taxing power by local, state and national governments. Members include former Caldwell mayoral candidate Paul Allredge; former Idaho House member Maurice Clements, who ran as a Libertarian against Sen. Patti Anne Lodge in 2012; and Barbara and Robert Forrey, who have authored pieces for The Gem State Patriot Tea Party publication.

Among the materials sent out to members and friends of the TAC were opinion pieces published in recent weeks around Idaho--including one by Midvale Republican Rep. Judy Boyle that blasts Idaho leaders like Otter and Gwartney for "crony capitalism in action."

"Will Idahoans tolerate such blatant corruption and backroom illegal deals with the taxpayer expected to pay all the bills?" Boyle wrote in the op-ed, which published Nov. 19. "Will Republican legislators allow themselves to be intimidated into silence simply because of a Republican governor, worried their bills will be vetoed or not even printed?"

In an interview with Boise Weekly, Boyle said she felt like she'd been "set up" not only by what she called the corruption of deals like the IEN contract, but other scandals including the mismanagement of Idaho prisons.

"I'm pretty plain-spoken ... and I thought the people of Idaho needed to know what was going on," she said. "It appears that it's a rotating cycle [of corruption]."

Though her opinion piece was referenced by the TAC in its email supporting a request for a grand jury, Boyle said she hadn't heard of the plan.

"I'm not sure the Legislature has the authority to do that," she said. Still, she added, something needs to be done not only to increase transparency in the state's procurement practices, but deal with the short-term fallout of the IEN scandal.

"I don't really know where that money's going to come from," Boyle said. "There are a lot of people that are trying to figure out what on earth can be done here."

One thing's for certain: "We're not going to let it be swept under the rug," she said.

--Zach Hagadone

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