Idaho Intercepted Confidential Legal Papers in Prison Lawsuit, ACLU Charges

March 10, 1999 12:00 am

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Wednesday, March 10, 1999

BOISE, ID — Government attorneys secretly intercepted correspondence between the American Civil Liberties Union and its clients in a class-action prison lawsuit, the ACLU said today.

In papers filed in Federal District Court in Boise, the ACLU said that two lawyers representing the Idaho Department of Corrections engaged in professional misconduct and should be sanctioned.

For a period of at least nine months in 1997, Timothy McNeese and Stephanie Altig, both Deputy Attorneys General, encouraged prison staff to secretly hand over copies of the ACLU’s confidential legal correspondence with their prisoner-clients.

Such actions, the ACLU charged, violate the corrections department’s own written policies, the rules of the court, the rules of professional conduct for lawyers, and the First Amendment rights of the prisoners and their ACLU lawyers.

If U.S. Magistrate Larry M. Boyle grants the ACLU’s motion, the state attorneys could be subject to fines, reprimands, and/or removal from the case.

The intercepted correspondence related to an ACLU class action lawsuit by Boise prisoners against the state department of corrections. The lawsuit, Gomez v. Spalding, charges that the corrections department retaliates against prisoners who file complaints about the conditions of their confinement. A six-week trial of that case took place last year before Judge Boyle. The court’s decision in the case, a seven-year battle, is now pending.

The secret surveillance came to light when the state’s lawyers filed a motion for contempt against ACLU lawyer Stephen Pevar, claiming that he had made statements to the court which were inconsistent with statements he made in confidential letters to his clients.

According to corrections department lawyers, Pevar’s statements in court showed he was guilty of fraud and that the prisoners’ lawsuit should be dismissed. Pevar denied this claim.

After reviewing the facts, Judge Boyle dismissed the state’s charges against Pevar and ordered the lawyers to turn over all letters they had copied and to cease their surveillance of the mail of their opposing counsel. The corrections department never asserted any security reason for its secret surveillance of the ACLU’s correspondence with the prisoners.

The ACLU said that announcement of its request for sanction, filed on February 17, 1999, was delayed to protect the identity of certain inmates pending a court order that the papers be sealed.

Former Chief Justice of the Idaho State Supreme Court, Charles F. McDevitt, now in private practice in Boise, has joined the ACLU complaint as “Counsel for Plaintiffs.”

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