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District court ruling may lead to appeal

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Boise Weekly's efforts to open a sealed state investigation into Intermountain Hospital have stalled, for now, after a ruling from District Court.

In a ruling issued late Tuesday, Judge Michael McLaughlin ruled against the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, and BW, both of whom had resisted a move to seal the state's records of its investigation into the conduct of the troubled psychiatric hospital.

BW has yet to decide whether it will appeal the decision, according to publisher Sally Freeman.

Deputy Attorney General Robert Luce, who represents the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, was not immediately available for comment.

"I am surprised by the decision," said David Gratton, BW's attorney from the firm Evans, Keane LLP. "The people of the state should be entitled to information the state gathers relative to the conduct of people licensed by the state."

At question is whether an investigation into the operations of Intermountain Hospital's residential teen care unit is public record. BW had requested a copy of the investigation's findings in December, under the Idaho Open Records Act. According to the Idaho Statesman, that newspaper and KTVB Channel 7 made similar requests.

In his ruling, Judge McLaughlin wrote that the central question was whether the records were open to public inspection or not. He referred to exemptions in Idaho law that restrict the public review of documents, including those pertaining to a business's license. "The Legislature intended the records of these proceedings to be exempt from disclosure," McLaughlin wrote. He also called Idaho's Public Records Act "piecemeal legislation" that made interpretation difficult.

"The Public Records Act has been problematic for the courts from its inception because portions of the statute have been added, deleted and edited over the course of 20 years," McLaughlin wrote. "Attempting to definee what is or is not a public record is not an easy task for a legislative body, especially when balancing privacy rights in the whole equation."

"It's pretty clear that we won't turn over that material," said Ross Mason, a spokesman for the state Health and Welfare Department. "We'll wait and see what the attorneys say."

Over several years Intermountain has been the subject of numerous complaints for understaffing, patient assaults on staff and fellow patients, medication errors, inappropriate discharges for financial reasons and, in one case settled out of court, the wrongful death of a teenage patient (BW News, "A Gathering Storm," 08/02/2006). The most recent incidents involved what adolescent patients and their parents referred to as a "riot" that required intervention by Boise police. Intermountain has temporarily closed the teen unit.

In his ruling, Judge McLaughlin referenced "the department's investigation concerning the 'revocation' of [Intermountain's] license to operate its adolescent residential treatment center." He quoted from a September, 2006 letter from the department to Intermountain saying that the department was "considering the revocation of [Intermountain's] license."

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