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Updates on Capitol Protests, Recall Effort, Gas Drilling and Larry Craig

ACLU of Idaho chalks up Statehouse win and Larry Craig keeps tussling with feds.

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The ACLU of Idaho is 2 for 2 in 2014.

Just days after the ACLU of Idaho's successful challenge to the city of Boise's controversial solicitation ordinance (BW, Citydesk, "This All Could Have Been Avoided," Jan. 15, 2014), the civil liberties activists set their sights on the Idaho Statehouse, where they warned lawmakers that they risked an unhealthy dose of legal fees if they insisted on backing new rules to limit rallies around the Capitol Mall.

In November 2013, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled that the state of Idaho's attempt to limit protests--and, in particular, its effort to curtail Occupy Boise protests--was in violation of the U.S. Constitution's protection of free speech.

"A group could occupy state property indefinitely until another group seeks to occupy the same area," wrote Winmill, who left intact rules that ban chalking, staking on the ground and allow for grounds maintenance. The decision warned the state, however, that the court could decide that these rules could also be unconstitutional if unfairly enforced.

In spite of that warning, Idaho Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna pushed forward with the restrictive rules, saying that if lawmakers voted in favor, they would show support for the state's legal appeal of the November ruling.

"[Legal fees] could double in the course of an appeal," ACLU of Idaho attorney Ritchie Eppink told the Senate State Affairs Committee, estimating that fees shouldered by Idaho taxpayers could mount to $200,000.

Ultimately, the committee voted 7-2 to reject the rules, as written by the Department of Administration. The Idaho House must also consider the same rules. If, as expected, the House committee rejects the rules, the Department of Administration will have to start from scratch in crafting new regulations to govern peaceful protest and occupation on the Capitol grounds.

No Recall for North Idaho School Trustee

In spite of his opponents securing a sufficient number of signatures and submitting the necessary paperwork, a recall effort against a North Idaho school board member has been dropped.

Earlier this month, Boise Weekly told you about a controversial proposal from Lake Pend Oreille School Board Trustee Steve Youngdahl that called for education staff to carry concealed weapons at his district's schools (BW, News, "Packing Heat," Jan. 8, 2014).

A number of residents signed petitions to launch a recall election and, indeed, the Bonner County clerk scheduled a special recall election for Tuesday, March 11.

But a procedural error has brought the recall effort to a halt.

The Idaho Secretary of State's Office ruled that the recall petition signatures needed to be turned in all at once to be valid, but it turns out that the recall petitions were submitted in two separate batches.

Recall organizers can still recollect signatures, but they now say they have no plans to do so.

Gas Drillers Go Public

Thousands of acres in the Gem State have been leased to oil and gas developers--the lion's share in Payette County.

Boise Weekly has chronicled the burgeoning gas drilling industry, which has been trying to jump-start in earnest since Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter was bragging that Bridge Resources had "hit a hell of a big well." Bridge went on to continue leasing properties from landowners and drilling several exploratory wells. But following a series of investigative reports by BW, Bridge's financial house of cards collapsed, and its leases were sold off to the next round of developers.

Texas-based Alta Mesa Services has since snapped up a number of leases and wells from Bridge and moved forward with its plans to build a natural gas processing plant near U.S. Highway 30, south of New Plymouth.

But it turns out that Alta Mesa, which is partnering with Snake River Oil and Gas, also has its eyes on Canyon County, leasing nearly 3,500 acres of public land there. All of the Canyon County leases purchased by Alta Mesa are north of Highway 44.

The state of Idaho has collected nearly $695,000 in leases of public lands to the gas exploration companies. To date, approximately 8,700 acres of Idaho's public lands--about half owned by the state's endowment fund and the other half owned by public trust--have been leased to the drillers. Funds raised through leases of the endowment fund are funneled to Idaho public schools.

Rules are Rules

It's been nearly 10 months since a federal judge told former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig that using campaign funds to pay for his defense after he was busted in a 2007 airport bathroom sex sting was out of line.

In March 2013, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said Craig's arrest had nothing do with his official duties as a U.S. senator. Craig was trying to fight a lawsuit from the Federal Election Commission, which charged Craig had improperly used $200,000 from his campaign war chest to fight disorderly conduct charges after he allegedly made a pass at an undercover police officer in a Minnesota airport bathroom.

Craig has been trying to appeal ever since, saying that federal prosecutors were coming down too hard, but on Jan. 17, FEC attorneys filed a response, arguing that Craig and his campaign "ignored admonitory language in FEC guidance indicating their spending would be illegal, and they now admit that they did not ask for their own advisory opinion because they were concerned the commission might say 'no.'"

Craig's D.C.-based lawyer, Andrew Herman, declined comment, but in recent court filings said the FEC's penalties were "harsh, unjustified remedies" and that his client was "financially unable to cover the total."

Judge Jackson may move forward with ordering Craig to pay the fines or schedule yet another hearing to consider more arguments.