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Judge voids broadband contract, clarifies ruling

A district judge said Idaho’s troubled broadband contract is void, clarifying a November ruling that sent state officials scrambling to find a solution to preserve the state’s public schools broadband program.

Fourth District Judge Patrick Owen submitted his final ruling Feb. 11 as a response to the Idaho Department of Administration seeking clarification on the $60 million broadband contract.

The program, known as the Idaho Education Network, or IEN, provides broadband access to more than 200 Idaho public high schools. The program has set up schools with video teleconference equipment, which allows teachers to offer classes to students across the state and increase the amount of dual-credit classes students can take to help prepare for college.

“The court did not come to its conclusions casually,” Owen wrote in his ruling. “The Court was well aware that (the Department of Administration) had used these awards to make significant investments in the IEN project since 2009. The court also was aware its decision likely would have a number of potential adverse consequences to schools and students.”

Owen’s decision not only applies to broadband services but also all additional work done for state agencies the Administration Department had approved using the same contract’s purchase orders. The judge wrote that at least $3.6 million had been given to the vendors for non-IEN services.

Late last year, Owen issued a ruling voiding the contract after finding the state violated its own procurement laws. However, the state appealed to determine if the entire contract was illegal or only portions that had been amended.

“In the Court’s view, because DOA improperly amended the awards to divide the scope of work, the amended awards are void regardless of whether that work was done for the IEN project or not,” Owen wrote. “There is no basis for differentiating the non-IEN work from the IEN work. All of the work has been done on the basis of awards that violate state procurement law.”

As a result of the November court order, the state stopped paying CenturyLink — formerly Qwest — and Education Networks of America because Idaho law prohibits tax dollars being spent on an illegal contract.

Last week, lawmakers were informed that the vendors had submitted an ultimatum stating that unless they begin receiving payments for services, Idaho’s broadband program will go dark Feb. 22. The vendors say the state should pay them back $4.2 million for the past four months.

“We can’t knowingly give funds to an illegal contract,” said Joint Finance Appropriations Committee Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “There are a lot of moving pieces as we wade our way through this. But we are doing our best to protect kids and to protect schools within the perimeters of the law.”

However, the funding standoff is just one of many unknowns the broadband contract has found itself in.

For example, lawmakers learned last week that the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the initial broadband contracting process and has interviewed members of the Administration Department, Education Networks of America and CenturyLink.

State officials are requesting a $1.6 million budget supplemental that would cover the costs of the service until the end of the June. A second budget request has also been submitted asking for $10.6 million to fund a one-year temporary contract that would continue the same broadband service until the Administration Department finalizes a long-term solution.

Democratic Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking said the ruling may affect support of the broadband project among the Statehouse.

“It’s going to be hard to find somebody now to carry legislation to fund this moving forward,” said Ward-Engelking, who had just heard of the judge’s ruling before talking to The Associated Press.

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