July 7, 2010 in Idaho

Ethics panel meets in Hart case

Members seek analyses from attorney general
By The Spokesman-Review
Betsy Russell photo

House Ethics Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, left, visits with committee members Bert Stevenson, R-Rupert, and Bill Killen, D-Boise, at the close of the first meeting of the panel on Tuesday. The seven-member committee will investigate the conduct of Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol.
(Full-size photo)

BOISE – A newly convened House Ethics Committee promised a “by the book” investigation into the conduct of Idaho state 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 committee assignments.

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.

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 by July 14. 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.

State 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.” State 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.

Hart has an appeal pending with the State Board of Tax Appeals in which he’s challenging 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 asserted 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 has used the legislative session to seek delays in his state or federal tax disputes.

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