- Associated Press - Monday, October 20, 2014

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - An Idaho State Police investigation into staffing problems at a private prison was handed over to the FBI after police detectives determined their agency could have a conflict of interest in the case, according to public records. Officials didn’t offer details of the potential conflict.

The records were among hundreds of documents obtained through public records requests by a campaign staffer for A.J. Balukoff, a Democrat who is challenging Republican incumbent Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter for the governor’s seat. Balukoff’s campaign spokesman, Mike Lanza, said Balukoff thought it was important for the public to find out how the state handled the investigation into understaffing at a prison run by Corrections Corporation of America.

“People deserve to know what happened here,” Lanza said.

The Idaho Department of Correction first asked the state police to investigate in 2013 after an Associated Press story revealed that some guards were recorded as working as many as 48 hours straight without a break. The Nashville, Tenn.,-based company later acknowledged it had understaffed Idaho’s largest prison by thousands of hours in violation of its $29-million-a-year contract with the state.

Though IDOC employees said they believed the criminal investigation was underway for the next year, in January of 2014, the state police acknowledged it had never investigated the case. The state ultimately reached a $1 million civil settlement with CCA to resolve the understaffing claims. A few days later, Gov. Otter ordered the state police to start the criminal probe.

One of the records, an internal state police memo describing a weekly investigation meeting dated March 3, states that detectives had begun interviewing people and analyzing evidence. Based on those initial steps, the detectives believed the case qualified as a criminal fraud matter, according to the memo.

An internal state police email from Capt. William Gardiner dated March 6 details a meeting that Gardiner had with state police Lt. Jack Catlin and officials at the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Writing about Catlin, Gardiner said, “He was stuck in a bind because much of the material uncovered was mingled with information that suggested (state police) administration was involved.”

Gardiner, who confirmed the email, said the conflict of interest was primarily that state police leaders had been involved in IDOC’s initial examination of the staffing issue, so state police detectives could find themselves interviewing their own superiors as part of the investigation. That could create the appearance it wasn’t an impartial investigation, he said.

Officials then met with the U.S. Attorney’s office, and the FBI took over the investigation.

State police spokeswoman Teresa Baker said earlier this year that the FBI was taking over the investigation because it was already handling similar cases, not because of a conflict. Baker said last week it’s not uncommon for law enforcement agencies to ask another agency to take over an investigation if there’s a chance people think it was being handled impartially.

“This doesn’t appear, just on the surface, to be a just a run-of-the-mill conflict. There appears to be serious unanswered questions right now,” Lanza said.

Both an FBI spokesman and U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson declined to comment on the matter because the investigation is still underway.

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