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‘Celebrity over taxpayers:’ Boise State, public records, Garth Brooks and the truth

PUBLISHER’S OPINION

For months, I’ve gone back and forth with the office of general counsel at Boise State over public records related to Garth Brooks. Without any satisfactory outcome, I felt it’s important to tell you the audience about the dialogue.

As you know by now, Brooks will play at Albertsons Stadium this month over two nights. It is the first major concert in the history of that facility, and significant use of public resources.

Rumors broke the ‘secret’

News of the concert trickled out in some unusual ways. First, on March 13th, KBOI-AM’s Mike Kasper said he was “hearing rumors” that Brooks would play in July on the Blue. The next day, Boise State Football head coach Bryan Harsin alluded to the concert in a news conference. Kasper then followed up on March 14th with additional information: three shows on July 19th, 20th and 21st.

These events made this information clearly in the scope of public scrutiny, worthy of public knowledge.

Trying to get to the truth

Two news outlets went to work trying to unwind what, exactly, was happening. But Boise State used dubious tactics to stymie those efforts.

First, The Idaho Statesman asked the school’s VP of Communications about the show. He gave this statement on March 15th:

“Boise State University does not have a signed facility license/rental agreement with any entertainment artist or other major event in Albertsons Stadium for this summer,” Greg Hahn said to the paper.

The Statesman later reported the school signed the contract on March 5th – making Hahn’s statement untrue at the time he made it.

With continued chatter and no official word, I submitted a public records request on April 15th asking for communication related to Brooks or any other events at Albertsons Stadium this summer.

The school waited until 44 minutes before the deadline mandated by Idaho State Code to categorically deny my request. As I reported the next morning, the school provided no documents. It cited several provisions of Idaho law – including trade secrets, attorney-client privilege and derivation of economic value.

My only legal recourse was to appeal the decision to district court. This is an expensive and lengthy procedure. Boise State knew this of course, and already planned to announce the show on May 8th.

A broad interpretation of records law

After the announcement, I followed up with Boise State’s Texie Montoya when the Statesman published some of the records I’d requested.

In this initial exchange, Montoya appeared to admit the school held back the records to protect the public announcement.

“Following the announcement, some of the deal terms no longer derived independent economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known,” she wrote.

As I told her later, this is wholly inappropriate. The school used a mix of exemptions in an attempt to hold these public records back. In a later email, Boise State’s Matt Wilde asserted that the law’s “trade secrets” provision allowed them to deny my request.

“The exemption relating to trade secrets in Idaho requires that two elements be met. First, that the information (a) Derives independent economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known to, and not being readily ascertainable by proper means by other persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use; and (b) Is the subject of efforts that are reasonable under the circumstances to maintain its secrecy.”
– Matt Wilde in an email to BoiseDev

Celebrity over taxpayers

However, the concert wasn’t a secret of course. An unknown source had leaked accurate information to Mike Kasper at KBOI — and the state’s highest-paid employee commented on it. The details Kasper reported turned out to be true, though a third show hasn’t been added due, apparently, to demand.

Wilde offered to meet me in person. After a subsequent email on June 14th and a request to meet with a representative of the Idaho Press Club, Wilde has not responded.

I included Melissa Davlin, Idaho Press Club VP on the long string of emails. She works on behalf of IPC members, including BoiseDev and the Statesman, on first amendment and public records issued.

“By denying this public records request, a state-funded university favored the interests of an out-of-state celebrity over Idaho taxpayers. That’s disappointing,” Davlin wrote. “Furthermore, citing broad, questionable exemptions in that denial sends the message to the public that Boise State University isn’t committed to transparency. The Idaho Press Club hopes that isn’t true, and we look forward to sitting down with university officials to discuss our concerns.”

The problem with misleading the public

Issuing a false statement to the Idaho Statesman and withholding clearly public records to BoiseDev are very troubling actions.

As I told Wilde, and anyone who knows me can attest, I’m a Boise State fan. I attended the school, went to all three Fiesta Bowls and “bleed blue,” to borrow a phrase.

Boise State held back accurate information and records until it could make a public announcement and shape the narrative through PR and marketing.

While it’s easy to say “this is just a silly concert, what’s the big deal?,” the danger here is the precedent this sets. The school could find itself embroiled in future controversy and employ similar tactics to try and block public scrutiny of its actions.

To this point, Wilde agrees.

“I can assure you that Boise State does not consider or think it’s ‘easy to say’ this event is just a ‘silly concert’ that requires little consideration of the impacts around an announcement,” Wilde wrote. “Quite the opposite, in fact, if you consider the economic impact to the Treasure Valley.”

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