Josh Tewalt, the director of the Idaho Department of Correction, has apparently been telling officials in Kootenai County that Lewiston is “welcoming” to a planned 100- to 130-bed work release center the Legislature funded last year.

But the department has no plans to locate the “community re-entry center” anywhere near Lewiston, according to spokesman Jeff Ray. And Tewalt is refusing to answer questions about whether he has been making such statements, and if he did, why.

In an email to the Lewiston Tribune, Ray said Tewalt is simply too busy during the legislative session to talk to a reporter. And in a follow-up conversation, Ray said Tewalt’s statements about Lewiston welcoming a center were based on talking to “people in the community,” without saying who those people are.

“We’re not going to talk about who said what, when and where,” Ray said.

The Tribune learned of Tewalt’s statements about Lewiston from Hayden City Councilor Matthew Roetter, who is among a contingent of residents, elected officials and political candidates who strongly oppose putting the $12.2 million center in Kootenai County. He said Tewalt made the statements directly to him at a meeting last September at a restaurant in the Coeur d’Alene Resort.

“During the lunch Mr. Tewalt stated that Lewiston is welcoming the placement of the Center,” Roetter wrote in an email to the Tribune that inquired about who in the community might have given Tewalt that idea.

Roetter provided names and contact information for others at the meeting who could verify the statements, and for Kootenai County Planning and Zoning Commissioner Deborah Rose. Rose told the Tribune that Tewalt made similar statements to her in person and over the phone.

“He told me that the Legislature wanted this center, and that Kootenai County has the population to support it,” Rose said. “But he said Lewiston doesn’t have the population to support it. He told me, ‘Why would I send all these guys to Lewiston when they’re not even from there?’ I said that’s exactly what he’s doing to Kootenai County. Frankly, I don’t believe anything he tells me anymore.”

John Grimm, a Hayden businessman and candidate for Kootenai County sheriff, also said Tewalt told him Lewiston wants the center during a meeting at Grimm’s office.

“There’s been numerous times where they have said things that aren’t exactly what’s going on,” Grimm said. “I don’t trust the IDOC at all.”

Hayden attorney Duane Rasmussen attended the September lunch along with the group that included Roetter, the Hayden city councilor. Rasmussen and Roetter teamed up in 2001 to torpedo a similar proposal for a center just a quarter-mile from Roetter’s home.

Rasmussen said that when the conversation at the lunch turned to Lewiston, Tewalt was upfront that it wasn’t being considered as a location because it didn’t have an adequate supply of the kind of jobs that would support a work-release program. But he confirmed Roetter’s account that Tewalt said Lewiston “would like to have it.”

“We need to get it squared away to see who said that,” Rasmussen said of finding the origin of Tewalt’s statement.

At the time, he guessed it might have been elected officials, like a Nez Perce County commissioner. The Tribune tried to find a Lewiston or Nez Perce County elected official or staff member who might have spoken with Tewalt and expressed any sentiment that could be construed as “welcoming.” Those efforts came up empty, but District 6 Rep. Mike Kingsley said that at one point last year that he related his interest in the project to a corrections employee.

Kingsley speculated that his statement possibly got back to Tewalt, giving him the genesis for his statements to people in Kootenai County. He expressed displeasure that his offhand comment may have been misappropriated to construe widespread support in Lewiston for the center.

“I would hate to think that (my comment) moved up his chain of command to the point of saying ‘Lewiston wants it,’ because it certainly wasn’t intended to be that,” Kingsley said. “That would be a pretty long stretch.”

The Legislature funded the new center as part of a Department of Correction effort to reduce the state’s recidivism rate. The centers are intended to help inmates who are near the end of their sentences successfully transition back into society. Idaho has four other centers, but none in the two northern Idaho districts that stretch from Bonner County in the north to Idaho County in the south.

Mills may be contacted at jmills@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2266.

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