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Ethics panel to go ‘by the book’ on Hart

Reps. Tom Loertscher, Bert Stevenson and Bill Killen sit on the House Ethics Committee on Tuesday. (Betsy Russell)
Reps. Tom Loertscher, Bert Stevenson and Bill Killen sit on the House Ethics Committee on Tuesday. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - A newly convened House Ethics Committee promised a “by the book” investigation into the conduct of Idaho Rep. Phil Hart on Tuesday.

Hart, R-Athol, faces ethics charges for invoking legislative privilege to seek repeated delays in his fights over his overdue state and federal income taxes, and for possible conflict of interest in serving on the House Revenue and Taxation Committee while pressing his personal tax fight.

“We want to do this by the book,” said Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, chairman of the seven-member, bipartisan ethics committee.

The committee could recommend anything from dismissal of the charges to expelling Hart from office. Other options include reprimand, censure, and removal from certain committees.

Hart did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, but Loertscher said he won’t be excluded from any of the panel’s hearings. He did, however, caution committee members not to have discussions with Hart.

“Just so that you know, I have not been approached by Rep. Hart at all on this matter,” Loertscher said. “I would caution the committee not to have those conversations and be careful.”

Loertscher said he ran into Hart at the state GOP convention in Idaho Falls, and “he avoided me like the plague - we said ‘hello’ and that’s it.”

Loertscher released a letter he sent to Hart asking for his formal response to the ethics complaint. “We would expect a response back from him no later than July 14 so that we could proceed,” he said. However, he noted that Hart doesn’t have to respond; if he doesn’t, the committee would simply proceed on the record.

Hart told The Spokesman-Review, “I guess I would say I’m anxious to get through the process, and I’m confident everything’s going to work out OK for me.” Hart said he’s received the letter from Loertscher, “and I do plan on responding to it.”

Committee members requested an array of information from the state Attorney General’s office, including legal analyses.

Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, said he’d like the Attorney General’s office to provide a legal briefing on the constitutional provision regarding legislative privilege from arrest or civil process during sessions. Loertscher said, “That certainly is appropriate.” Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, also asked for briefing on applicable laws, and Vice Chair Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, asked for information regarding House Rule 38, which governs conflict of interest.

Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane told the panel there are two main issues in the complaint against Hart: The constitutional privilege provision and whether it was abused, including questions about related laws; and House Rule 38 regarding conflicts of interest.

On the constitutional privilege, Kane noted, “Since there is a current, live legal proceeding with regard to that, that question may actually be answered by a court.” But that doesn’t stop the committee from ruling on the issue with regard to ethics rules, he said.

Hart has an appeal pending with the State Board of Tax Appeals in which he seeks to appeal an order to pay $53,000 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest, despite filing his appeal months after the deadline. Hart contends as a state legislator, he’s entitled to extra time because of the legislative session.

Hart’s 91-day appeal period was within days of running out when he declared that the Legislature would convene its January session in 10 days, so he had until spring to file his appeal. The state Tax Commission disagrees and has moved to dismiss his appeal.

That was the fourth time since 2006 Hart’s used the legislative session to seek delays in his state or federal tax disputes.

Loertscher told the committee members that as soon as he receives Hart’s response, “I’ll see that you get that the minute that I receive that, so that you have a chance to review that.” Asked by Jaquet whether that document and others in the proceeding are public, Loertscher said, “Absolutely. All of this is done in the open. There’s no executive privilege here whatsoever. Everything that I receive with regard to this I’ll make sure that you all get a copy of that.”

Ethics committees are a rarity in the Idaho Legislature; the last time the Idaho House convened an ethics committee was in 2003, when then-Speaker Bruce Newcomb called for the committee to investigate himself for holding a closed meeting with a quorum of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee; the panel cleared Newcomb of any wrongdoing.

In 2005, the Idaho Senate convened an ethics committee that censured then-Sen. Jack Noble after he introduced legislation that would have made his own convenience store eligible for a state liquor license, though it’s across the street from an elementary school, without disclosing his personal stake in the issue, and then lied about it to the Ethics Committee. Noble resigned on the eve of a Senate vote on whether to expel him from office.