BOISE – A special House Ethics Committee voted 4-3 along party lines Thursday to clear Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, of conflict of interest charges related to his ongoing fights over his federal and state income taxes.
“I don’t think that the allegations were specific enough,” said state Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry. “I hope if nothing else that comes out of this, that it’s a wake-up call for all of us to be very careful about our appearances.”
The three Democrats on the committee said Hart’s actions showed a pattern of ignoring the House rule that requires conflicts of interest be disclosed before votes. They favored a motion to reprimand Hart and recommend his removal from the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, but it failed on a party-line vote.
“I think that the behavior does reflect badly on all of us,” said state Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum. “It reflects badly on the credibility of the body. So I can’t vote to dismiss here.”
One ethics charge against Hart remains, that he abused the legislative privilege from arrest or civil process during sessions by repeatedly citing it to seek delays in his state and federal income tax cases. The ethics committee will take up that charge after the state Board of Tax Appeals rules on it in Hart’s ongoing case; its decision is pending.
The decision Thursday came even though the committee brought up a new conflict-of-interest allegation against Hart: That he voted against legislation that a Tax Commission attorney said could have directly affected his case.
HB 436 would have prevented taxpayers who hadn’t filed returns in a past year from filing later to address those years, starting whole new cycles of appeal deadlines and potentially extending their cases indefinitely. Hart failed to file state income tax returns for the tax years 1996, 1997 and 1998, according to the Tax Commission. Erick Shaner, deputy attorney general, told the committee, “This particular piece of legislation would have affected his ability to address those particular years in regard to his subsequent filing … on his behalf.”
Hart declined to answer questions from the ethics committee. His attorney, Starr Kelso, of Coeur d’Alene, spoke for him.
Kelso said of HB 436: “No. 1, it applies to all Idaho taxpayers. It was a Tax Commission bill. And speaking with Mr. Shaner, I asked him specifically, was it the purpose and intent of the Tax Commission in putting forth this bill to address Mr. Hart? The answer was of course not. There are a number of people with situations like this.”
Plus, Kelso said, the bill really was aimed at those who want to claim refunds, and thus didn’t appy to Hart.
The bill died on a tie vote.
State Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, said that in his view, a legislator can’t have a conflict of interest on a bill if it affects anyone other than the legislator. “I think we have to be careful here in terms of singling out a particular piece of legislation that Rep. Hart may be involved with, unless it pertains to him only,” Raybould declared. “I think we’ve got to be careful or we’re not going to be able to have anyone involved in our legislative capacity except people who don’t have family and don’t have jobs.”
But when committee members described the times they’ve declared conflicts of interest, that wasn’t the standard they used. Raybould said he declared a conflict on a budget bill for a veterinary education program in which his grandson was enrolled. State Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, said he declared a conflict on a public employee retirement bill, because he receives a small retirement payment from past public employment.
State Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, who participated in the meeting by phone, said, “In this situation, the perception up here for the most part is that Rep. Hart has behaved inappropriately. … It’s a pattern of actions involving taxes on all fronts.”
After the hearing, Hart said he doesn’t plan to declare conflicts before voting on tax bills. “I think that’s a troubling road to go down, to have a disciplinary action based on perceptions,” he said. “I think as citizen legislators, we all do something else for a living. I think we ought to have some flexibility and some deference to the members.”