BOISE - A special House Ethics Committee voted 6-1 today to launch a full investigation into the latest ethics complaint against tax-protesting state Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, and reconvene in January.
“I was really pleased to see that we are going to have another meeting and maybe get to some specifics,” said Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, the panel’s vice-chair.
The committee is considering an ethics complaint filed against Hart by Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, charging that Hart has violated his oath of office by fighting his state and federal income taxes and claiming they’re unconstitutional; by invoking legislative privilege to win delays in his personal tax cases; and by illegally logging state school endowment lands for logs to build his home in Athol in 1996, for which he still hasn’t paid an outstanding judgment.
Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, told the committee today, “I don’t know why we have an oath if it’s not going to be enforced.”
In addition to the tax, privilege and timber issues, Anderson submitted information to the committee about Hart’s involvement in selling NORFED or Liberty Dollars, a movement that was ended by an FBI raid in 2007, and then introducing legislation regarding silver currency in 2010. The panel wasn’t certain it could address that issue, however, because it wasn’t listed in Anderson’s original complaint.
“I think there’s a pattern of behavior that certainly has raised a lot of hackles of not only my own conscience that’s been pricked by this, but I think many people in the state have grave concerns about it,” Anderson said.
Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, cast the lone dissenting vote.
“You know, as legislators we all have something in our past,” Loertscher said.
According to public records including IRS liens and court documents, Hart owes more than $500,000 in back state and federal income taxes, penalties and interest. He also has an outstanding judgment for thousands of dollars stemming from a 1996 timber theft on state endowment lands that he unsuccessfully defended in court.
Loertscher said he doesn’t feel that the “constitutional rights to exhaust our remedies ends the day we take office, or the day we run for office.” He added, “As it pertains to the timber sales, this certainly happened before his involvement in the Legislature, and I would hate to have an ethics investigation into my own personal background prior to my being a legislator. I’m not here to tell you that there’s anything you would find, but there might be something that someone would have a perception about.”
Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, a lawyer, said he’s had “an opportunity to revisit the law” since the same panel dismissed an earlier ethics complaint against Hart, but unanimously voted to recommend he be removed from the House tax committee.
Killen said he discovered a section of law that “makes it a misdemeanor, makes it a crime to willfully fail to pay your taxes.” He said, “Based on that, I think that we should proceed further down the road on this. It seems, regardless of the rationale, regardless of what personal subjective beliefs of Mr. Hart, what he’s engaged in is flatly against the law in the state of Idaho, and I think should be engaged in beyond this hearing.”
Hart declined to answer questions from the committee, leaving that to his Coeur d’Alene attorney, Starr Kelso, who at one point termed the committee’s inquiries “just an incredible fishing expedition.”
Both Hart and Kelso participated in today’s hearing by phone.
Hart submitted letters of support from GOP central committees in Boundary, Bonner and Benewah counties, saying he should be cleared of all ethics charges. “We know that Representative Hart received 75.2 percent of his district’s vote and this was after the people already knew about his problems with the IRS and Tax Commission,” wrote Pamela Kaynor, Benewah County GOP chairman.
The committee also received several emails and letters from Hart supporters, with several of them identical; and members received some from other North Idaho residents criticizing Hart.
W.L. Leiby of Coeur d’Alene wrote in a Dec. 9 letter, “What is the problem here? Is it that Rep. Hart supported and was supported by the tea-party? Is it that he supported staunch new conservatives against tired old dead-wood? Why is it Rep. Hart is being persecuted by the establishment?”
Bob Ritchie of Coeur d’Alene wrote, “I would feel a lot different about Rep. Hart if he would pay what he owes and continue his fight without hiding behind his legislative status.”
Wrote Reid Harlocker of Hayden, “There are very few people who are satisfied with the tax system, but the methods of Rep. Hart smack of anarchy. This is not tolerable in a civilized society.”