Posts tagged: ethics
Last year, Idaho Senate members disclosed conflicts of interest 36 times, Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane said during the legislative ethics training session this afternoon; House members made 50 such disclosures plus five requests to be excused from voting. Kane said while that might sound like a lot, 342 bills were enacted last session. That means there were 11,970 opportunities for disclosure in the Senate, and nearly 24,000 opportunities in the House. Kane said the numbers show it’s not a big burden. “Always err on the side of disclosure,” he said. “We’re here to try to promote confidence in government.”
Kane defined conflict of interest as “any private interest affecting your ability to act in the public interest.” He said, “If you have an influence that you naturally are going to lean toward,” disclose it.
Kane said too much disclosure has never led to the convening of an ethics committee in the Idaho Legislature. Click below for full report from AP reporter John Miller on today's unprecedented ethics training session for state lawmakers.
Ethics expert Scott Raecker shared a story at the legislative ethics training session this afternoon about proposing a bill as a new lawmaker, and being told bills with sponsorship only from minority-party lawmakers don’t get public hearings. He had brought together various stakeholders behind the bill, and pressed his point – and the bill both was heard and passed. “Why would we not hear good ideas just because of who brought it to the table?” Raecker asked. Sometimes, he said, the Legislature’s culture needs to change, in order to create a values-based ethical culture. He said, “We shape the culture, and the culture shapes the character.”
Said Raecker, “It's not a matter of circumstance but of choice, and I would urge you to continue to choose wisely in Idaho.”
Ethics expert Scott Raecker, a longtime Iowa state lawmaker and executive director of Character Counts in Iowa at Drake University, has a big crowd of lawmakers from both houses at the ethics training session this afternoon in the Capitol Auditorium. Raecker shared his favorite quote from Thomas Jefferson: “Sir, I am going to treat you as a gentleman not because you are one, but because I am one.” Said Raecker, “I challenge all of us to raise the bar higher – raise the bar higher and do what Jefferson said.”
He outlined the “six pillars of character:” Trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. “We care deeply about what we’re doing in public service,” Raecker said. “Our passions run very, very high. We need self discipline. … Our language is important and our actions are important.”
Raecker is a certified corporate ethics trainer with the Josephson Institute of Ethics, and served 14 years in the Iowa Legislature, including chairing the House Appropriations Committee and the Ethics Committee.
This afternoon’s legislative ethics training also includes sessions on conflicts of interest, the public trust and the law, led by Deputy Idaho Attorney General Brian Kane; on money and campaigns; led by Kane and Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa; and on communications, led by Kane, from the public records law and use of official letterhead to distinctions between official, personal and campaign business. At the close of today’s program, from 4:30 to 5, the group will break into House and Senate groups for a Q-&-A session.
After a string of ethical lapses and questions about Idaho lawmakers' conduct that's only been increasing in recent years, new lawmakers will face something unprecedented when they arrive in Boise for their organizational session next week: Formal ethics training. And that's not all. When the Legislature convenes its 2013 session the second week of January, business will pause on the session's third day, as all lawmakers, old and new, are put through an hours-long ethics training session.
“Obviously, we've had some issues with breaches of ethical behavior over the last few years,” said Idaho Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg. Hill said he and House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, decided to institute the new training, and the Legislative Council, a panel of legislative leaders, approved it.
“I think it's a good idea,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston. “I applaud it.” But he noted that a bipartisan working group of senators and representatives met for weeks during the 2012 legislative session without success, trying to reach consensus on new, tougher ethics laws, from an independent ethics commission - which only Idaho and eight other states lack - to financial disclosure requirements for lawmakers, which only Idaho and two other states don't have. Said Rusche, “I still think there's a long way to go.”
The list of ethical lapses is long, ranging from matters that barely raised eyebrows to several prompting full ethics investigations; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― After Democrats used Idaho's official seal on their campaign material, minority party members are now complaining that Republicans are engaging in similarly inappropriate behavior. Idaho's secretary of state warns candidates and lawmakers not to misappropriate the seal for election purposes, contending it's only for official business. Republican Sen. Mitch Toryanski of Boise incorporates Idaho's seal into his re-election web site. His opponent in November, former Democratic Rep. Branden Durst, complained to The Associated Press Tuesday, contending Toryanski's use of the seal merits reporting ― “in the name of impartiality.” That's after news reports that three Democrats ― Sen. Elliot Werk, Rep. Sue Chew and House hopeful John Gannon ― sent a note emblazoned with the seal to voters Monday seeking to highlight GOP ethics transgressions. Toryanski didn't return a call.
Three Boise Democratic candidates sent voters a campaign newsletter emblazoned with Idaho's official state seal, even though the secretary of state's office discourages people from using the seal on anything but official state business, the AP reports. Sen. Elliot Werk, Rep. Sue Chew and candidate John Gannon distributed the mailer by email Monday to south Boise voters. It aims to highlight what the candidates say are Republican ethics transgressions — and Democrats' push for stronger ethics laws. The email also asks for donations for two of the candidates. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.
Kris Sabo of Sagle was surprised when an official state-funded letter arrived in the mail from Idaho Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, talking about Nuxoll's record and thanking supporters as she seeks re-election. “My gosh, she's from Cottonwood – where the heck is that?” Sabo asked. “If she's using our money to help her campaign to keep her job, that shows disrespect for our money. Nobody's going to pay for me to go out and try to keep my job.”
Sabo currently is in Idaho's legislative District 2, one of the North Idaho Panhandle legislative districts. But redistricting in Idaho will put her in the new District 7 next year, which stretches from southeastern Bonner County all the way south to the Valley County line at the mid-section of the state; Cottonwood is nearly a four-hour drive south of Sagle.
Though state senators can send out taxpayer-funded mailings, up to a $2,000 annual limit, this one's raising eyebrows because Nuxoll sent it to about 1,700 Republicans not only in her current district, but also in the new district she'd represent if she wins another term. “I just approached it as informing people. This is an informational letter,” Nuxoll said. “There might have been one negative comment.” She added that she sent it just to Republicans “because I am a Republican and I had to limit the number of letters going out to keep under my limit by the state.”
Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, says he wishes he'd addressed the old district/new district issue with senators, but since it only comes up every 10 years – when new legislative districts take effect – no one thought of it. “We probably should have discussed it and maybe even got some kind of ruling from the Attorney General's office,” Hill said. “We did not do that.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com, and click below for the full text of Nuxoll's letter.
Idaho state Rep. Phil Hart paid $1,000 in campaign funds in 2011 to Coeur d'Alene attorney Starr Kelso, who's representing him in his ongoing fight against back state income taxes; Hart lost his tax appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court last week. But Hart said the payment was for helping him defend against a series of House ethics complaints. The fourth-term lawmaker faced ethics complaints over his tax fight and an illegal state timber harvest; Kelso represented Hart at two House Ethics Committee hearings in Boise in 2010 and submitted documents on his behalf.
Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said, “There's nothing prohibiting that.” Campaign funds can be used for anything “related to being a holder of public office,” he said. And while Idaho state law doesn't specifically mention the use of campaign funds for legal defense, Ysursa said, “We look to the feds for some guidance, and they have in the past indicated that legal defense fund use of campaign funds was OK.” There's a prominent precedent among Idaho politicians: Then-U.S. Sen. Larry Craig tapped his campaign funds for more than a quarter-million dollars after his arrest in a Minneapolis airport restroom sex sting in 2007, including $23,000 for an attorney to represent him in a Senate ethics investigation. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
Washington is among the least “corruptible” states in the nation, while Idaho placed 40th out of 50 in a scorecard released Monday, reports S-R reporter Jim Camden. Two watchdog organizations, the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity joined with Public Radio International and journalists around the country to score the states on some 330 points involving a wide array of government activities. (Disclosure here: I was the Idaho reporter on this project.) The scores were then tallied, and letter grades assigned; no state got an A. Washington ranked third in the nation.
Idaho, by contrast, got As for its redistricting and internal audit processes, but Fs for a lack of laws that allow residents to keep its executive and legislative officials accountable, determine whether its civil service and pension fund are well managed, and having no agency assigned to monitor or enforce ethics laws. Idaho's overall grade was a D-minus; you can read Camden's full story here at spokesman.com; see Idaho's full report card here, and read my full report here for the State Integrity Investigation.
This morning, minority Democrats in the Idaho Legislature announced three new ethics reform proposals and called on Republicans to work with them on the bills - and by this afternoon, the Republicans had agreed. The Democrats called for requiring financial disclosure from public and elected officials in the state, something only Idaho and two other states lack; a bill to impose a one-year wait before former lawmakers or other public officials could register as lobbyists; and a whistleblower hotline law for state employees. The proposals came on the heels of the Democrats' call for Idaho to create an independent ethics commission; GOP leaders agreed, and both sides have formed a bipartisan working group to draft a consensus bill.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill both said they'd like the working group to also consider the three issues Democrats highlighted. “I think the working group ought to discuss those things, see if they can come up with suggestions,” Hill said. “I'd just encourage it.” Denney said he's open to the ideas, including the one-year lobbying restriction. “I don't have a problem with that,” he said. “Let's hear it.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
Legislative Democrats today announced that they'll be proposing three additional ethics reform bills: A financial disclosure bill dubbed the “Conflict of Interest Act;” a revolving-door bill called the “Lobbyist Restriction Act” that would impose a one-year waiting period before public officials or legislators could register as lobbyists; and a “Whistleblower Reporting & Protection Act,” which would strengthen Idaho's whistleblower law by adding a telephone hotline and online reporting for active or former state employees to report concerns without fear of retaliation. Complaints received under that act would be referred to the new independent ethics commission that both parties are working this year to create.
Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, said the Democrats are hoping that Republicans will join them in working on all three bills plus the ethics commission bill, through the bipartisan working group that's been appointed to work out a bipartisan ethics commission bill. That working group, with two members from each party in each house, likely will hold its first meeting tomorrow morning.
“The ethics commission is only the first critical step in the right direction,” Malepeai said. “Idaho still lags significantly behind other states in demonstrating to people that we value integrity so much that we make it the law of the land.” He noted that Democrats have been pushing for ethics reforms since 2005, but nothing has passed, though a bipartisan financial disclosure bill passed the Senate unanimously in 2009 before dying without a hearing in the House; the Democrats' proposed new disclosure bill will be “slightly more restrictive” than the 2009 measure, Malepeai said. He said Idahoans are losing trust in their lawmakers. “The need … has never been greater, and the time for reform is now,” he said.
Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Larry Grant is calling on House State Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, to resign from the Legislature, citing Loertscher's killing of a bill proposed by Idaho highway districts to require a public hearing before a public road is vacated, shortly before he filed a lawsuit seeking to declare a road on his land private. “Loertscher’s actions are highly suspicious,” Grant said. “It certainly appears he has used his office for personal advantage.” House Speaker Lawerence Denney, who assigned the bill to Loertscher's committee at his request, rather than to the Transportation Committee, has declined thus far to call for an ethics committee to investigate the issue, though any House member may request one. Click below for the party's full news release.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho's House Speaker says he will not call for an ethics investigation into whether Rep. Tom Loertscher benefited personally from a bill he helped kill during the 2011 Legislature. Speaker Lawerence Denney said Thursday he doesn't believe Loertscher acted inappropriately or gained financially by burying a bill designed to clarify the process of abandoning public roads. Loertscher is a Republican from Iona and is suing in state court to have old roads that provide public access across his ranch declared private. But last week, the Post Register reported that Loertscher took his case to court weeks after using his authority as chairman of the State Affairs Committee to derail a bill that would have required counties to hold public hearings before vacating roads. Idaho law also allows individual House members to request an ethics investigation.
Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, said his decision to voluntarily step down as vice-chairman of the House Transportation Committee - in an effort to avoid an ethics vote removing him from the post - was the right step to take, a day after he apologized to the House for his ethics issues. “I'm glad it's resolved,” Hart said. “I think it made it easier for the committee to wrap it up.”
Hart said he still expects another ethics complaint, not from another lawmaker but from a citizen, to be filed against him. “I think the complaints will keep coming until the political effect of them is diminished,” Hart said.
Hart remains embroiled in both state and federal income tax fights; he recently filed papers in Kootenai County asking a district judge to reconsider his strongly written ruling dismissing Hart's appeal of an order to pay more than $53,000 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest; a hearing on Hart's motion to reconsider is scheduled for March. Also in January, the IRS filed two more tax liens against Hart in Kootenai County; they include a $16,382 lien against Hart for 2007 federal income taxes, and a $14,168 lien against the trust that owns his engineering firm for business taxes owed from 2004; the federal tax agency already has filed nearly a half-million dollars worth of tax liens against Hart.
The House Ethics Committee has come out of executive session after nearly a full hour. Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said panel members need a break, so they're going to go at ease for about 10 minutes. “We will take up in open session at 10 after the hour,” he said.
The House Ethics Committee, which has pending before it a complaint filed against Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, has set a meeting for Friday morning at 8, with an executive session to be followed by an open meeting. The panel will meet in room EW 40 on the lower level of the state Capitol. Pending against Hart is a complaint, filed by Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, charging that Hart violated his oath of office by fighting state and federal income taxes; repeatedly invoking legislative privilege in his personal tax fights; and illegally cutting trees from state school endowment land, using them to build his log home in Athol and never paying an outstanding judgment in the case.
In addition to that complaint, the committee also has received two citizen complaints, one from North Idaho political activist Larry Spencer, a Hart supporter, targeting Anderson; and the other from Hayden businessman Howard Griffiths, a former write-in candidate against Hart, questioning Hart's participation in a legislative meeting with judges including the one before whom Hart is currently pressing his state income tax appeal.
Yet another ethics complaint has been filed against Idaho Rep. Phil Hart, this one by the write-in candidate who unsuccessfully ran against him in November. Hayden businessman Howard Griffiths, who garnered 25 percent of the vote for his write-in bid, sent in an ethics complaint even though officials say only House members can file those; earlier, another North Idaho resident, Larry Spencer, did the same, filing an ethics complaint against another North Idaho representative who had filed his own complaint against Hart.
Griffiths' complaint focuses on Hart's participation in a meeting between local judges and North Idaho lawmakers, at a time when he had his own tax appeal pending before one of the judges making the presentations. Hart's appeal of an order to pay more than $53,000 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest was rejected by 1st District Judge John Mitchell on Dec. 8; Hart filed a motion for reconsideration two weeks later and has a hearing before Mitchell scheduled for March.
Griffiths said it was unethical for Hart to go hear the judge's requests for funding and other consideration from the Legislature when he had his own matter before the same judge. “Here's Hart in the front row looking right at 'em,” Griffiths said. “The whole thing is, it's mind-boggling.”
House Speaker Lawerence Denney said he received Griffiths' complaint and forwarded it to House Ethics Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, who plans to convene a meeting of the Ethics Committee next week. “I've got a perfectly good ethics committee - they might just as well be busy,” Denney said. As for Hart's participation in the meeting with the judges, Denney said, “I don't think it's inappropriate, but let's let the ethics committee look. I suspect that if they think there's probable cause, that there will be a complaint brought by a legislator.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal, in today’s paper, interviews Rep. Tom Loertscher, chair of the House Ethics Committee, about the Phil Hart case and why Loertscher was the lone vote against looking further into the latest ethics complaint against Hart. First, there’s that business of Loertscher saying, “As legislators we all have something in our past.” Writes Vestal, “Nothing whets the journalistic appetite like the prospect of a Gem State skeleton. I called Loertscher to drag the truth out of him. Do we really all have something in our past? ‘Don’t you?’ he asked. Why yes. Yes I do. More than one thing, perhaps. But the question, Mr. Representative, is do you? ‘I hope not,’ he said. ‘I haven’t shot anybody or gotten a deer out of season or anything.’
Vestal goes on to note, “He said he’s not endorsing Hart’s behavior so much as doubting whether his committee is the place to deal with it. I think it is, but Loertscher’s not necessarily a white-washer to see it otherwise. ‘Judgment Day eventually comes,’ he said. ‘When he’s exhausted all his remedies, he’ll have a bill to pay or not. That bill will come due someday … and then the hammer will fall. That’s the way it works.’” You can read the full column here.
After today’s House Ethics Committee deliberations, Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, said, “Well, I still think they’re looking for their allegation that shows that there is bona fide violation of Rule 76. … They’re still empty-handed.”
Asked what he hopes happens next, Hart said, “I’m hoping that I can get on with the legislation that I want to run in 2011,” including a new version of his “sound money” bill and others. The new bill will be “a similar concept” to Hart’s silver medallion bill from this year, he said, “although I don’t have anything finalized yet. There will be some changes from last year’s bill.”
Starr Kelso, attorney for embattled Rep. Phil Hart, said after today’s House Ethics Committee meeting, “What I can say is that the legislative process is a fluid and complex process where politics and due process meet. And so, I guess it was reasonable that they asked Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane to put his thoughts in writing. He seemed to me that he had expressed his thoughts verbally, but to require that they be in writing, that’s certainly the prerogative of the committee. So I wasn’t disappointed. They do what they do.”