On May 13, a Twin Falls jury of 12 convicted Jefferson County Sheriff Blair Olsen of three felony counts of misusing public funds. He faces up to 33 years in prison and will be sentenced by Judge Gregory Moeller on June 22.
The likely sentence is less than the maximum, but the conviction is a felony and will bar him from public office.
The trial was originally set for Jefferson County but presiding Judge Moeller granted a motion to move the case to Magic Valley given extensive publicity in Eastern Idaho.
Olsen has been Sheriff for some years in the rapidly growing county between Idaho Falls and Rexburg. The county seat is Rigby.
At issue was a cell phone paid for by Jefferson County and held by Olsen’s wife between January 2010 and April 2012.
Olsen claimed that the cell phone was a “backup,” used if he couldn’t be reached on his regular cell phone. But the testimony was that the phone was primarily used by his wife for personal reasons.
The Idaho Attorney General’s Office led the charge by indicting Olsen through a grand jury in January. Originally, Olsen was indicted on four counts, three related to the cell phone held by his wife and another related to the purchase of a lifetime membership in the National Rifle Association. Judge Moeller dismissed the NRA membership charge as filed too late under the applicable statute of limitations.
The Idaho statute at issue is:
18-5701. MISUSE OF PUBLIC MONEYS BY PUBLIC OFFICERS AND PUBLIC EMPLOYEES. No public officer or public employee shall:
(1) Without authority of law, appropriate public moneys or any portion thereof to his own use, or to the use of another; or
(2) Loan public moneys or any portion thereof; or, having the possession or control of any public moneys, make a profit, directly or indirectly out of public moneys, or use public moneys for any purpose not authorized by law; or
(3) Fail to keep public moneys in his possession until disbursed or paid out by authority of law when legally required to do so; or
(4) Deposit public moneys or any portion thereof in any bank, or with any banker or other person, otherwise than on special deposit, or as otherwise authorized by law; or
(5) Change or convert public moneys or any portion thereof from coin into currency, or from currency into coin or other currency, without authority of law; or
(6) Knowingly keep any false account, or make any false entry or erasure in any account of or relating to public moneys; or fraudulently alter, falsify, conceal, destroy or obliterate any such account; or
(7) Willfully refuse or omit to pay over, on demand, any public moneys in his hands, upon the presentation of a draft, order or warrant drawn upon such public moneys by competent authority; or
(8) Willfully omit to transfer public moneys when such transfer is required by law; or
(9) Willfully omit or refuse to pay over to any public officer, employee or person authorized by law to receive the same, any public moneys received by him under any duty imposed by law so to pay over the same; or
(10) Knowingly use any public moneys, or financial transaction card, financial transaction card account number or credit account issued to or for the benefit of any governmental entity to make any purchase, loan, guarantee or advance of moneys for any personal purpose or for any purpose other than for the use or benefit of the governmental entity.
The chief trial prosecutor was Deputy Prosecutor Jason Spillman. He told Local News 8: "It's a case we felt strongly about," he said. "I know the attorney general (Lawrence Wasden) felt strongly about pursuing misuse of public funds, so we're pleased with the result. ... I think it was a really hard, at times complex and tedious case. They [the jury] did a really excellent job of staying on track and paying good attention, and they just did a really nice job."
The charges were triggered by a complaint by the Restoring Integrity Project.
Spokesman Bruce Baxter, in an interview, noted that Olsen’s conviction is not the end of public corruption issues in Jefferson County, claiming that Olsen was “small potatoes”.
He noted that the Attorney General’s Office alleged that Olsen has tampered with witnesses and engaged in extortion which could lead to future action.
But, he believes the big targets are past and present county commissioners and County Prosecutor Robin Dunn who recently survived a recall election, despite 81% of voters supporting his recall. Baxter says “[t] whole place is corrupt. There is a culture of corruption.”
Asked why his group is pursing these issues, Baxter stated: “I am doing this to advocate for people who can’t advocate for themselves.” He indicated that various past and present county workers are afraid to speak up about what they know, fearful of retaliation.
In 2013, the Idaho Attorney General Office pursued a similar action against former Minidoka County Sheriff, Kevin Halverson. He was accused of misuse of public funds for using a Minidoka gas card to purchase fuel for personal use. He plead guilty and was sentenced to 90 days in the county jail, fined $1,500 and placed upon probation for 3 years.
Because Olsen did not plea and was convicted, he is likely to face a somewhat stiffer sentence.