Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, chairman of the special House Ethics Committee that’s investigating the conduct of Rep. Phil Hart, said now that the state Board of Tax Appeals has rejected Hart’s appeal, he’ll likely reconvene the Ethics Committee to hear the second charge against Hart, abuse of legislative privilege. “It’s something that we’d rather not do at all, but that’s our charge, and that’s what we’ll do, we’ll do what’s required of us,” Loertscher said. “We’ll have to make the determination now as to whether or not he’s abused this constitutional privilege or not. Quite frankly, this is probably the more serious of the two charges in the complaint.”
Loertscher said, “The reason why we decided not to move forward was because we just didn’t want to muddy the water for that appeal. So as soon as I get word about that and everything’s put together, then we’ll probably convene the committee again.” He added, “I think the Ethics Committee would want to know why the thing (Hart’s appeal) hadn’t been done in a more timely fashion.”
The ethics complaint against Hart, filed by House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, charged Hart with possible abuse of the privilege, which he’s cited repeatedly to seek delays in his state and federal income tax battles; and with conflicts of interest for voting on and sponsoring tax legislation while pressing his own personal fight against the state Tax Commission over back income taxes. Last month, the committee voted 4-3, along party lines, to clear Hart on the conflict of interest charge. Hart is a third-term Republican from Athol with a history of tax protesting; he stopped filing both state and federal income tax returns in 1996 while he pressed an unsuccessful lawsuit claiming the federal income tax was unconstitutional. He’s since been wrangling with both federal and state authorities over back payments; public records show he owes nearly $700,000 in state and federal income taxes, penalties and interest. In his state appeal, Hart also alleged that the state income tax was unconstitutional.