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Eye On Olympia

Ethics board: We lack jurisdiction over Rep. Ahern’s meeting with teens

Weeks after an angry parent complained that state Rep. John Ahern “verbally abused” teens lobbying him on behalf of Planned Parenthood, a state ethics board has dismissed the complaint.

The Legislative Ethics Board concluded that it lacked jurisdiction over a conversation between Ahern, the students and an adult chaperone.

The ruling means that “the legislator is entitled to his opinion and that there’s no ethical provision which addresses language which some people think to be offensive,” said board attorney Mike O’Connell. He released the ruling Wednesday.

The complaint was filed by one of the students’ parents, Wesley Wilhelm of Spokane.

On Jan. 21, seven local youths from Planned Parenthood of the Inland Northwest’s teen advisory board met with Ahern, R-Spokane, in his legislative office in Olympia. They were promoting family planning and more funding for sex education.

“It’s the first time in 8 years they’ve decided to come visit me, so I decided I’d have some good questions for them,” Ahern said Wednesday.

It turned out to be mainly just one question, asked over and over. As Ahern recalls it, he said “By the way, I need to find out how many unborn babies were killed by Planned Parenthood.”

Ahern says he asked the students that a couple of times, then asked their chaperone twice, then asked the teens a couple of more times.

“I was just trying to give them a lesson on pro-life issues,” he said. He said Wednesday that he feels the group is “trying to refurbish their image by bringing teenagers into their fold.”

When one girl protested at the meeting that she should have control over her body, he said, he asked whether an unborn child should have a say, too.

“That stymied them,” Ahern said.

The incident, first reported by The Inlander, disgusted Wilhelm. His then-15-year-old daughter was one of the half-dozen teens.

In a Feb. 10 letter to House Republican leader Richard DeBolt, Wilhelm called the “persistent, off-topic and threatening” questioning “abusive” and asked that Ahern be investigated and punished for a “complete lack of human decency.” The students were not there lobbying about abortion, he said.

“Such abuse of anyone, regardless of their political positions, is reprehensible,” he wrote.

Wilhelm also called for a written apology to the students, all lawmakers, and to the more than 130,000 residents of Ahern’s legislative district.

Civic-minded teens who visit their lawmakers shouldn’t be berated, he said. And Ahern’s behavior, he said, belies the “Washington State Legislature welcomes kids of all ages” statement trumpeted on the legislative web page.

UPDATE: Ahern’s been feeling the love lately from columnists over this incident, including Hard 7’s Rebecca Mack, who notes pointedly that he’s up for election:

Ahern will doubtless toot his horn about the work he’s done over the years trying to get a felony DUI bill passed, and remove the statute of limitations for sex crimes against children. That’s fine and dandy, but Ahern’s good work in no way gives him a pass on his gaffes.

Ahern says he’s not worried.

“Was it Harry Truman who said `If you can’t stand the heat stay out of the kitchen?’” he said.

(Read full print version of the story here.)


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Richard Roesler covers Washington state news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Olympia.

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