Vestal: Hart ethics panel holdout Loertscher has a point

Tom Loertscher is the one guy on the Idaho House Ethics Committee who wants to leave Phil Hart alone.

How about Hart’s unpaid half-million in taxes and lame, I’m-a-legislator excuses? Old news. Or his theft of logs from state lands back in 1996 – not to mention his bizarre attempt to make up for it by sending in a payment last month that was a “donation”?

That comes from Hart’s pre-legislative era. Not our affair, Loertscher said.

“You know, as legislators we all have something in our past,” he told reporters in Boise on Monday, after everybody but him on the House Ethics Committee voted to dig further into Hart’s shady behavior.

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.”

So. No scoop, I guess. Loertscher’s a paleo-conservative from Iona, a small farming community in southeastern Idaho, who has eight children, a big farm and 12 years as a representative. He’s done some of the preposterous things that he and his ilk are always doing in Idaho, like flying the flag of “family values” while voting not to require criminal background checks on day-care workers.

As he did in 2007, offering this alternative prescription: “What can we do to keep Mom at home?”

I don’t know. Pay her less than Dad? That comment brought down a lot of heat on Loertscher, which he deserved. I mean, he said he “cannot imagine” putting a child in day care – revealing things about his connections to the real world that he did not, perhaps, intend.

So maybe that’s what he meant when he said, “We live in a glass house here,” and “The public never ever knows the full story,” while explaining his rationale in the matter of Hart v. Common Sense and Decency.

On the face of it, Loertscher sounds like one of those guys who just ain’t that bothered by what Phil Hart has done. Who admires it, even.

To recap: Hart owes more than $500,000 in unpaid state and federal income taxes, penalties and fees – taxes he refused to pay while researching all the constitutional and historical reasons one doesn’t have to pay income taxes. He also stole logs off land meant to support the schools, in order to build himself a home. When that news emerged earlier this year, he sent a check for about $2,400 to the state, labeling it a “donation.” It was about a tenth of what the state says he owes.

Hart has a long, unintentionally amusing “interview” posted on his website, in which he explains all this away. Urging viewers to decide the truth for themselves – don’t believe the hype! – he paints himself as a media martyr and First Amendment champion. The “interviewer” lobs softballs and kisses heinie. Hart’s not just some guy in Idaho refusing to pay his taxes, he insists. He’s some guy in Idaho refusing to pay his taxes for very good reasons, supported by the fact that he spent one year in law school.

“A tax on our wages is a tax on our right to exist,” he says.

He also insists, amusingly, that he has paid some taxes. As if that were the issue.

Anyway. The House ethics panel discussed this stuff and decided to investigate further, on a 6-1 vote. Loertscher, as noted, being the one.

So it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that Loertscher is ethically dim. Craven. Corrupt.

I had my brickbats ready. But then, as we talked about it, I started seeing his point. Sort of.

“I’m not a fan of Phil Hart’s, but I think he deserves a fair shake in this,” he said. “By that, I mean I’m not trying to defend him or his behavior. I don’t think that’s appropriate for me to do. I think it’s up to the voters. … I would not have pursued this as he did.”

Loertscher says the ethics committee has already ruled on the tax question, and he’s right, however lousy that ruling was. He’s one of the people responsible for its lousiness. As for the theft of the logs, it did happen 14 years ago, before Hart was a lawmaker.

Still, I’m not persuaded. Hart’s dodging and dancing and attempting to excuse himself on flimsy legal grounds – there is little more entertaining in the annals of law than reading a judge take apart a legal argument by Hart – brings the question of his ethical behavior into the present in a pretty clear way.

But I’ll give Loertscher the benefit of the doubt. 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.”

Here’s to the hammer. Whoever swings it.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or

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