Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney announced Tuesday that he’s removing embattled Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, from the House Revenue and Taxation Committee for the next two years and that he’ll convene a new ethics committee to look into Hart’s conduct.
Hart, a tax protester who’s locked in a fight with the state Tax Commission over back state income taxes, also owes thousands on an outstanding judgment over a 1996 timber theft from state school endowment lands. Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, filed an ethics complaint against Hart late last week charging that in both those cases, Hart violated his oath of office as a state lawmaker, and calling Hart’s conduct a “stain” on the Legislature.
Denney, who announced his decision during a North Idaho Chamber of Commerce legislative tour that drew dozens of lawmakers to a series of presentations and events in the Panhandle from Sunday to Tuesday, said he made his decision - which matches the unanimous recommendation of a special House Ethics Committee in September - because Hart himself requested it in an Oct. 29 letter.
However, Hart had refused to voluntarily step down from the tax panel in September when the Ethics Committee offered him the option; he said then he saw no conflict of interest between his service there and his personal tax fights.
Hart currently has an appeal pending in 1st District Court in Kootenai County of an order to pay $53,000 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest. Public records including IRS liens show he owes more than $500,000 in back state and federal taxes.
In the timber case, Hart illegally took 8,000 board feet of logs from state school endowment land to build his Athol home.
Denney said initially that he’d wait until after the Nov. 2 election to act on the ethics committee’s recommendation, and then said he’d wait until after he’d had a chance to visit with Hart during the North Idaho tour.
Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, who served as vice-chair of the ethics committee, said Tuesday, “Why did he wait so long? I think he sent a message that it probably wasn’t as important as maybe those of us who are on the committee thought it was.”
Jaquet said she’s concerned that Hart is “tarnishing the reputation of all legislators,” and said, “I think if he would resign, that would be an appropriate thing to do - resign before we have to convene an ethics committee.”
Denney, in a news release Tuesday, said, “Phil’s one of the hardest-working members of the House, and I believe he’ll continue to be responsive to his constituents while serving on another committee.”
Hart, in his Oct. 29 letter to Denney, said it was “with real sadness” that he asked for a different committee assignment. “I continue in my passionate belief that we must fight the over-reach of government through its power to tax,” Hart wrote. “However, the developments of the past several months have created a rather toxic environment for me and members of the House. I fear that my continued service on this committee would only serve to provide fodder to members of the media and my political opponents.”
Denney also said in his announcement that he’ll appoint a new ethics committee to look into Hart’s conduct “as soon as possible.”
Hart, who was missing from much of the tour but attended a banquet on Monday night, didn’t return a reporter’s calls for comment.
House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said, “I hope he can get his issues resolved in regards to his tax situation. I don’t know enough about the timber deal to really comment on that. But the voters in his district sent him back with 75 percent of the vote, so I assume he’s going to be a legislator. I hope he has the time to get his problems solved.”
Moyle added, “I feel sorry for him. … It’s a real touchy deal. … It’s a bad deal for all of us.”
Hart was unopposed for a fourth term, but fellow Republican Howard Griffiths filed against him as a write-in this summer in protest over Hart’s tax troubles; 25 percent of voters in the district wrote in Griffiths’ name instead of voting for Hart.
Anderson, who filed the second ethics complaint after news of Hart’s 1996 timber theft surfaced, left the tour early and was back home Tuesday morning. “This has been really hard on me and the family,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of calls. They’ve been very supportive from the general public, but I would say less supportive by some,” including some other lawmakers.
Anderson said people in his district feel strongly that Hart’s actions, both on his tax fights and the timber theft, were wrong. “It’s obvious to most in my home of Priest Lake that these are serious things that he’s been involved in,” he said.
Anderson, who said last week that he thought Hart should be removed from the Legislature, said Tuesday that he’s willing to leave the issue to the new ethics committee. “I feel confident I need to let the system work and see what happens,” he said. “I want things to be done right.”