By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
Bonner County commissioners on Feb. 28 repealed an earlier decision to engage an outside law firm for board training purposes, after questions were raised about commissioner campaign contributions made by individuals allegedly connected to the firm.
Commissioner Luke Omodt brought forth a proposal Feb. 14 to contract with Davillier Law Group to create an education training program for commissions and boards throughout county government, after he’d observed what he called “room to improve” in meeting procedures and the carrying out of county business.
Despite pushback from Commissioner Asia Williams, who argued that the Bonner County Prosecutor’s Office was already tasked with providing such training, Omodt and BOCC Chairman Steve Bradshaw voted to engage Davillier Law Group to design and implement the program.
Davillier has been in the news locally for representing the county in its failed lawsuit against the city of Sandpoint regarding the Festival at Sandpoint’s policy against weapons at War Memorial Field. On a national scale, the New Orleans-based firm — which also has offices in Sandpoint and Phoenix — has been involved in cases such as the fight against Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, challenges to COVID-19 masking laws and questioning “election integrity” after the 2020 presidential election.
Davillier has current retainers with Bonner County, last updated in July 2022 to increase billing rates for several attorneys.
The firm once again appeared on the BOCC agenda Feb. 28 — this time, in the form of an action item brought forth by Williams to “Review Prior Board Decision Regarding Engaging Davillier Law Group for a Training Program.” However, the issue prompted discussion earlier in the meeting when constituent Dave Bowman participated in public comment.
Citing concerns expressed by another member of the public on Feb. 21, Bowman noted campaign contributions Bradshaw received from Davillier Law attorneys George Wentz and Mauricio Cardona. Because those donations were made toward Bradshaw’s failed run for Idaho governor, the commissioner brushed them off at the Feb. 21 meeting as unrelated to county business.
“I’m here to tell you it does matter,” Bowman said Feb. 28. “The whole episode reeks of a lack of transparency, influence peddling and you’ve insulted the very people that you’re here to serve.”
Bowman said he’d filed a criminal complaint with the Idaho Attorney General’s Office and Bonner County Prosecutor’s Office “calling for an investigation into the pecuniary transactions” between Bradshaw and members of Davillier Law Group.
“We are over it,” Bowman said, speaking for other members of the public. “We are going to clean this county up and this is just the start.”
The issue of campaign contributions came up in short order as soon as the board reached Williams’ proposal to review the Feb. 14 decision to hire Davillier for board training. When Williams asked if any members of the board had a conflict of interest, Bradshaw said he did, based on the “accusation” from Bowman. Bradshaw went on to ask Williams if she knew Mat Macdonald, to which she replied she did. Bradshaw went on to allege that Macdonald is an employee of Wentz and contributed to her campaign for commissioner, therefore also creating a conflict of interest for Williams.
Williams said she knew Macdonald through the Bonner County Republican Central Committee, on which he serves as vice-chair and a precinct committeeman.
“I don’t have any relationship with Davillier Law Firm,” she said.
Records from the Idaho Secretary of State’s campaign finance disclosure portal shows a contribution from a “Matt MacDonald” (listed at the same address as Mat Macdonald) of $100 to Williams during her commissioner campaign, accounting for about 1.1% of her total funds raised. Williams received an additional $800 from other officers and precinct committeemen of the BCRCC.
The Reader reached out to Macdonald for clarification on whether he is currently employed by Davillier Law Group, but did not receive a response before press time.
Between August 2021 and April 2022, campaign finance records show that Wentz contributed a total of $4,000 to Bradshaw’s run for governor, accounting for about 4.4% of his total funds raised. Cardona gave Bradshaw a total of $540 between two donations in 2021.
Williams did not state a conflict of interest, and instead said she would consult with legal counsel to make that determination.
Bonner County Deputy Prosecutor Bill Wilson then chimed in, stating he was “addressing this for the first time today” and “shooting from the hip.” He said he was friends with Macdonald but was not familiar with his employment, to which Bradshaw alleged Macdonald was a “paralegal” working for Davillier.
“In that case, it’s a red flag,” Wilson said. “I can’t give you a clear-cut answer on this.”
He recommended that the board consider a motion to disengage with Davillier on the board training issue due to the “uncertain landscape” created by the campaign contributions.
“My recommendation is … that [the decision to hire them for board training] be considered voided and no work be performed by Davillier at this time, until such time as we’ve had the opportunity to really get to the bottom of these issues,” Wilson said. “I would hate to see this decision move forward and possibly have unintended consequences that we can’t predict at this point.”
The Reader asked Wilson in a follow-up email whether that possible “red flag” would also apply to the firm’s existing contracts to do other work for the county, but he declined to comment further, adding that he, “tend[s] to defer public comment to the county’s elected officials.”
Omodt said he had concerns that not hiring Davillier on the grounds that the firm’s attorneys had made campaign donations would violate their First Amendment rights.
“If an individual contributes, of their own free will, the fruits of their labor, then their employer cannot be utilized by county government? I have significant struggles with that,” he said.
Wilson said that it was not the board’s decision, at this time, to determine whether a state statute violated the Constitution.
Williams restated that her reasoning for wanting to repeal the decision to engage Davillier for board training stemmed from her belief that the prosecutor’s office should be performing that work, but also reiterated that, “A sitting commissioner has actually engaged their services, so from the view of transparency, that’s a valid concern.”
“It’s not apples to apples to say, ‘Asia got $100 from Mat Macdonald and Bradshaw got $4,000-$5,000 [from Davillier attorneys] and hired them while he was running and for other issues,” she added, prompting vocal pushback.
“I’ve never hired them for anything. Make your statements accurate,” Bradshaw said. “‘Steve Bradshaw has never hired them for anything.’”
The Reader reached out to Bradshaw to clarify whether his votes to engage the firm for the Festival suit and update retainer agreements in July of last year qualified as effectively “hiring” the attorneys who donated to his gubernatorial campaign, but he did not reply before press time.
Wilson said it was not the time to debate that issue, but rather to undo the board’s prior decision and “set the clock back to zero” and create more time to understand if those campaign contributions created a conflict of interest for either commissioner.
Williams made the motion to disengage Davillier for the board training services and Bradshaw stepped down from the chair to second. Both voted in favor of the motion, effectively rendering the Feb. 14 contract void. Omodt cast the lone vote in opposition.
Additional reporting by Zach Hagadone.
While we have you ...
... if you appreciate that access to the news, opinion, humor, entertainment and cultural reporting in the Sandpoint Reader is freely available in our print newspaper as well as here on our website, we have a favor to ask. The Reader is locally owned and free of the large corporate, big-money influence that affects so much of the media today. We're supported entirely by our valued advertisers and readers. We're committed to continued free access to our paper and our website here with NO PAYWALL - period. But of course, it does cost money to produce the Reader. If you're a reader who appreciates the value of an independent, local news source, we hope you'll consider a voluntary contribution. You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.
You can contribute at either Paypal or Patreon.Contribute at Patreon Contribute at Paypal