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Idaho Sheriff Guilty of Misuse of Public Funds

by Christopher Zoukis

Blaire Olsen, the former Sheriff of Jefferson County, Idaho, was found guilty of three counts of misuse of public funds after a 2015 jury trial. He was sentenced to three years of probation, and fired. On appeal to the Supreme Court of the State of Idaho, two of the counts were reversed, but one was affirmed.

The facts of the case are almost laughable. Olsen was the Sheriff of Jefferson County for 26 years at the time he was found guilty. During his tenure, the county provided and paid for two cell phones for his official use. Initially, two were required due to spotty cell coverage in the county. When this issue was alleviated, the phones were designated as a primary and a backup.

Olsen ran into a problem when a political opponent learned that the backup phone was being used by the Sheriff's wife. After multiple meetings of the County Commissioners over the issue, Olsen asked that the matter be referred to the Attorney General so that his name could be cleared.

That move, likely grounded in political calculation, turned out to be a big mistake. Sheriff Olsen was indicted on three felony counts of "knowingly using public money to make purchases for personal purposes" by permitting his wife to use the backup phone.

On appeal, the Idaho Supreme Court rejected Olsen's arguments that his conviction violated the separation of powers doctrine, that the statute was unconstitutionally vague, and that the government violated double jeopardy when it charged him with three counts even though his wife's use of the phone was one continuous transaction. The court did find, however, that the government should have aggregated all of the incidents into one count, pursuant to Idaho statutory law. Thus, two counts were thrown out, and one was affirmed.

The Idaho Supreme Court also identified a significant error made by Olsen's appellate counsel, one which may have cost the former Sheriff a full reversal. Obviously disturbed over the petty nature of the case, the court pointed out the highly salient fact that the backup phone did not cost the county an extra penny. It was included at no extra charge with the primary phone, so regardless of Olsen's wife using it or not, the cost was the same.

"The cost to the county would have been the same whether the cell phone was sitting in a drawer or being used by Mr. Olsen's wife," wrote the court. "It is difficult to imagine how, under such circumstances, paying for the cell phone plan while his wife was using the cell phone would constitute the 'use of public moneys . . . to make any purchase.' "

Unfortunately for Sheriff Olsen, his attorney failed to challenge the sufficiency of the evidence in his appeal. Had he done so, the Idaho Supreme Court would very likely have reversed all of the convictions.

Apparently, the race for Sheriff in Jefferson County, Idaho is a contact sport. One shudders to think of the amount of money spent on the litigation of such a petty matter. See:  State of Idaho v. Olsen, No. 43496-2015, 2016 Opinion No. 147 (Id. 2016).

Related legal case

State of Idaho v. Olsen


 

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