BOISE – A Republican lawmaker from North Idaho has filed a new ethics complaint against Rep. Phil Hart, saying Hart’s 1996 theft of state school endowment-owned timber, claims of legislative immunity and tax protesting show he’s violated his oath of office.
Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, calls Hart’s actions a “stain” on the House and says he should be removed from office.
“I’m a little frustrated with leadership right now because they haven’t taken action,” said Anderson, who just won a fourth term in the House. “The speaker should have done something a long time ago.”
In late September, a special House Ethics Committee unanimously recommended that Hart be removed from the House tax committee while he continues to press his personal fight against paying state and federal income taxes he owes. House Speaker Lawrence Denney hasn’t taken action on that recommendation; he said earlier that he planned to wait until after the election, then said on Wednesday that he’d reached a decision but didn’t want to announce it until after he visited with Hart this weekend.
Idaho lawmakers are gathering in North Idaho Sunday through Tuesday for the North Idaho Legislative Tour, an every-other-year event that includes a speech from Gov. Butch Otter on Monday. Neither Denney nor Hart was available for comment on Friday.
Anderson, who has served in the House with Hart since 2004, said the news last month that Hart had stolen timber from state endowment land in 1996 and never paid an outstanding judgment for it was among the factors that prompted him to act. He said he gave Denney the ethics complaint on Thursday.
“The hardest part for me was that nothing has transpired,” Anderson said. “The people are tired of it. I get calls all the time. I’m surrounded by Priest Lake State Park, and people are just shocked that someone could steal timber off of endowment lands and then be a legislator. It shocks people where I live.”
Hart maintained in 1996 that a loophole in state law permitted him to take the school endowment-owned timber for use in his log home, which he was building in Athol; the courts repeatedly disagreed.
He’s also a tax protester who has waged a long fight with the Internal Revenue Service over income taxes, which he contends are unconstitutional. He’s currently fighting an order from the state Tax Commission to pay $53,000 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest.
This week, the state Tax Commission filed a motion in 1st District Court in Kootenai County to dismiss Hart’s latest appeal, saying, “It is the appellant’s assertion that his status as a legislator relieves him of having to take the affirmative step of appealing the Tax Commission decision in a timely fashion. The commission does not agree.”
Hart was ordered to pay the back state income taxes in October 2009; he had 91 days to appeal. He contends that because the state legislative session began within 10 days of the end of the 91-day appeal period, he actually had months longer to appeal the order. A provision of the Idaho Constitution protects state legislators from arrest or “any civil process” during legislative sessions or 10 days before they start; Hart filed an appeal to the state Board of Tax Appeals on March 31.
The board rejected his appeal as too late; it also rejected his motion to reconsider that decision.
Anderson’s ethics complaint says, “His claim of immunity has been denied by the Idaho Board of Tax Appeals but he refuses to pay his debt and thereby further violates his Oath of Office.”
Hart’s current court appeal also claims that the Idaho income tax is unconstitutional.
Anderson said Hart’s continuing claim that federal income taxes are unconstitutional and that the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution wasn’t properly ratified – a claim Hart propounded in a book he authored – are violating his oath of office.
Anderson noted that all legislators swear an oath to uphold the state and U.S. constitutions. “You can’t stand there and swear to that oath and then reject any portion that he doesn’t agree with, and still make that oath,” Anderson said. “I think that’s wrong.”
He said, “I wish I didn’t have to do this. There’s nothing comfortable about it for me. … It’s about the Legislature and the House of Representatives. I think this casts a terrible shadow over all of us.”