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Hart facing further investigation

Tue., Dec. 14, 2010, midnight

House ethics panel votes to instigate full inquiry

BOISE – A special House Ethics Committee voted 6-1 on Monday to launch a full investigation into the latest ethics complaint against tax-protesting Idaho state Rep. Phil Hart.

Hart said afterward that he thought the committee was “still empty-handed” in finding a “bona fide” ethics violation on his part.

But committee members, who could’ve dismissed the matter Monday, said a three-count ethics complaint against Hart from fellow GOP state Rep. Eric Anderson of Priest Lake warrants more inquiry.

Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, an attorney, said he’s identified a clause in Idaho state 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.”

Anderson’s complaint against Hart, R-Athol, charges that Hart 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 to build his log home in Athol in 1996, for which he still hasn’t paid an outstanding judgment.

Anderson told the committee, “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 Liberty Dollars, which were part of a silver alternate-currency movement that was ended by an FBI raid in 2007, and subsequent introduction of 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.

Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, cast the lone dissenting vote.

“You know, as legislators we all have something in our past,” Loertscher said.

Hart owes more than $500,000 in back state and federal income taxes, penalties and interest, according to court documents and other public records. He also has an outstanding judgment for thousands of dollars stemming from the 1996 state timber theft, which he unsuccessfully fought 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.” The timber incident, he said, “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.”

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