Friday, July 22, 2011

Economy shapes Idaho attorney generalís work, workload

Lawrence Wasden represents state with smaller staff, budget

Express Staff Writer

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden speaks with the Idaho Mountain Express on Monday. Photo by Willy Cook

Signs of the times are everywhere at the Idaho Attorney General's Office. Issues that Lawrence Wasden and his staff deal with are reflective of the economy—scams targeting the indebted, the uninsured and the underwater—while those who work the cases are doing more with, and for, less.

Wasden and Robert Cooper, director of constituent information and communication, spoke with the Idaho Mountain Express on Monday following Wasden's remarks to the National District Attorneys Association summer conference, held this week in Sun Valley.

When not surrounded by attorneys, Wasden said, he's frequently asked what an attorney general does.

"I'm elected as the legal officer of the state. I represent the state," he said.

The Office of the Attorney General provides legal representation to Idaho and the state's agencies, not to individuals. Work the office does, however, impacts individuals in myriad, though sometimes indirect, ways.

The office serves three groups: the governor, Legislature and judiciary; major state agencies; and small boards and commissions.

At times, the pace can be fast. During the legislative session, Wasden said, his office answers between 150 and 250 legal questions, most within 24 hours.

"That's actually a very, very difficult task for us to do," he said.

At other times, the work stretches over years, even decades. The AG's office represents the state in the Snake River Adjudication, a process that began in 1987 and is expected to be completed in late 2012 or 2013. Just 2,500 of 150,000 claims are yet to be decided.

Conjunctive management—managing the Snake River aquifer—goes back to 2001. Litigation of salmon recovery has been ongoing since 1990.

Tricks of the theft trade

Criminals and scam artists see opportunity in the down economy, Wasden said.

< "When the economy goes down, the nature of the scams changes to target that vulnerable audience," he said.

Types of scams his office, and attorney general offices around the country, currently are dealing with include telemarketing; investment offers; work-at-home offers; debt-management services; checks, sweepstakes and lottery scams; scams targeting grandparents and the elderly; and security breaches.

"Consumers should be skeptical of unsolicited investment offers received by email, regular mail or by telephone," Wasden said. "Work at home offers, generally showing how to make money off of eBay, [are] charging $10,000 to $20,000, and you'll never be able to recoup the kind of money they're promising."

He said debt-management services are proliferating, taking advantage of people who are financially at risk.

"Companies say they can reduce or eliminate the consumer's credit card debt," he said. "They charge an up-front fee. It's unlawful to charge an up-front fee (for that)."

How many people fall for scams?

"Fortunately, not very many," Cooper said, "but unfortunately, some."

Even Cooper himself was the target, though not the victim, of a questionable business practice.

"My state cell phone rang," Cooper said. "They said this is your final notification. This is your last opportunity to reduce your credit card rates ... I said, 'You've reached the Idaho Attorney General's Office. How may I help you?'"

One scam targets grandparents. In it, a caller poses as someone's grandchild. The caller says he or she is in legal trouble in another state or country and asks for money. The callers use social media updates to convince grandparents that the call is valid.

"It gets pretty elaborate," Wasden said. "People are taking a look at Facebook pages or MySpace or whatever and they're gathering details from blogs."

While these are national problems, Cooper said, "We've seen all of these in Idaho."

Laid off or lured away

As the type of work has been affected, so has the amount. Wasden's office has 207 positions. Like workers across most professions, Wasden's staff has been impacted by the economy.

"Budget cuts have been very significant," he said.

The office has a fiscal 2012 budget of $17.9 million, down from a fiscal 2010 budget of $19.1 million. Of that, 89 percent is for personnel costs.

When the Legislature appropriates less money to the AG's office, there is only one place to cut. About 26 authorized positions—19 of those attorneys—remain unfilled due to budget cuts.

Staff has seen pay cuts and furloughs, as well as layoffs.

Attorneys in the special prosecutions unit are at half staff, down from four to two. Work they do is now often pushed back to counties.

Those who remain are sometimes eventually lured away by the private sector or by counties, both of which can offer higher salaries.

"Within the last month, we've lost several people to private firms (in Idaho) at salaries that were about twice what they were making at my office," Wasden said.

Still, those who work for the AG's office know their efforts are needed, Cooper said.

"Especially for the attorneys, there's a lot of satisfaction in service and in doing something they think is important," he said.

Wasden said that despite the cuts, his office is still able to represent Idaho's legal interests.

"We're the most cost-efficient legal services around," he said.

AG's office at a glance

The Idaho Attorney General's Office employs 207 people: 126 attorneys, 19 paralegals, six investigators, 19 legal secretaries, seven division chiefs and 30 management and support staff. The divisions within the office are Senior Management, Administration and Budget, Civil Litigation, Consumer Protection, Contracts and Administrative Law, Criminal Law, and Natural Resources.

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