Late last month, Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office declined to prosecute Nez Perce County Sheriff Joe Rodriguez for tax evasion, perjury and misuse of a county credit card.
If you’re Nez Perce County Commissioner Doug Havens, you’ve got to be scratching your head about that.
Except for a deputy Idaho Attorney General’s procedural error that resulted in dismissal of the case, Havens would have gone on trial about a year ago on four misdemeanor counts. Havens had participated in declaring county property surplus and then, at auction, made four $5 transactions to acquire a 50-year-old operating table, a toolbox, a filing cabinet and a windshield wiper display.
The amount of money involved was miniscule. But that was not the point. When it came to public corruption, the attorney general was not motivated so much by dollars but by the behavior. A sheriff in Minidoka County was convicted for improper use of a county credit card. A former prosecutor in Idaho Falls was nailed for taking firearms from a police evidence room. A former sheriff in Jefferson County got in trouble for giving his wife a county cellphone.
It comes down to the “broken windows” approach to public corruption. Stop petty offenses and you stand a better chance of avoiding the desensitization that breeds only more serious misbehavior among those holding public office.
So how do you explain Rodriguez’s case?
Not only did his alleged offenses involve more money, but they were more serious crimes.
Investigators found “evidence sufficient to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt” that on his 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 income tax returns, Rodriguez failed to report about $4,986 worth of income earned as a mechanic, thus avoiding $365 in taxes.
That subjected Rodriguez to two felonies:
l Tax evasion, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
l Perjury, which carries a minimum of one year in prison with a maximum 14-year sentence and fines up to $50,000.
Tax evasion and perjury, the attorney general’s office reports, “are concerning, especially given Sheriff’ Rodriguez’s position.”
While Wasden’s office discredited three of four allegations that Rodriguez improperly used a county credit card, it found the sheriff billed the taxpayers for a $47.81 meal for himself and his wife — more than twice the amount associated with Havens’ offenses. That offense is a misdemeanor carrying a possible year in jail and $1,000 fine.
What could account for this discrepancy?
You can argue that Havens’ behavior occurred while he was acting as a public official. The most serious of Rodriguez’s charges involved actions committed off the job — although the allegation of perjury may undermine his ability to serve as a witness in any future criminal trial.
You might assert — as the attorney general does — that there are adequate remedies, such as a State Tax Commission audit that will require Rodriguez to pay back taxes and possible penalties. Or that Rodriguez take a remedial class about the proper use of a county credit card — after he reimburses the taxpayers for $47.81.
You may even agree with the attorney general’s conclusion that prosecuting a sheriff for such trivial amounts of money would waste resources in an office that is under constant budget scrutiny from state lawmakers.
“As this office can only prove the amount of unreported income documented by specific checks, the state would only be able to prove a small loss of revenue to the state of Idaho in an amount less than $400 over five years,” the attorney general’s office concludes. “This raises concerns related to the effective use of resources and the likelihood of the jury deciding to convict Rodriguez.”
You could even suggest Nez Perce County Prosecutor Justin Coleman should ask a colleague in another county to take a second look at the Rodriguez file.
Or you could simply leave the verdict to the voters, who booted Rodriguez out of office Tuesday in favor of former Undersheriff Bryce Scrimsher by a nearly 2 to 1 margin while reelecting Havens over former Lewiston Mayor and state Rep. Jeff Nesset by 53 to 47 percent.
But it still leaves this question unanswered: Why did the state play hardball with a county commissioner while it pulled its punches with the county’s top cop? — M.T.