October 13, 2010 in City, Idaho

Vestal: Hart doing little to earn sympathy

By The Spokesman-Review
 

John McHone has a beef with Phil Hart.

McHone thinks anyone who steals timber from public lands – as Hart did to build a log home in Athol – ought to pay the penalty.

“I think the (good Mr. Hart) ought to get some kind of time out of it,” McHone said – though his original comment was much saltier. “They got a lot of federal joints around here. They put me in a federal penitentiary.”

Like Hart, McHone stole timber from public lands. Unlike Hart, he served a sentence for the crime: a year in the federal pen. He and a team of others were busted cutting firewood in the Nez Perce National Forest back in 2003.

McHone took more timber than Hart did – about $17,000 worth of logs in 2003, compared with roughly $2,400 in logs that Hart cut in 1996. McHone’s crime was a federal felony; Hart was slapped with a civil judgment of triple damages plus investigative costs – which he fought in court, running up his debt to the taxpayers to more than $22,000.

It must be galling for McHone to hear how Hart danced and dodged and ignored and delayed and rope-a-doped and avoided settling that debt. Hart did forfeit a $5,000 bond in an appeal, and he may have made a payment toward the state’s attorney fees. But even in the best-case scenario, he owes thousands of dollars – a debt the state seems unlikely to collect.

McHone broke the law. Hart, who’s running for re-election to the Idaho House, seems to think he’s above it.

For a while now, I’ve been pondering Hart’s refusal to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes, among his other cases of just not getting it. The most egregious example of the latter is the fact that he sat on the House Tax Committee while battling the state over back taxes, and he tried to win a delay in the case because he’s a legislator.

The House Ethics Committee didn’t charge Hart with formal violations. But these were obvious, naked conflicts of interest.

Hart’s whole approach – his tax battles, his deadbeat-as-hero shtick, his faith in his own misbegotten interpretation of the law – is of a piece with all the anti-government pulpit-pounding that is so tiresome and familiar these days. It casts taxation as a nefarious, almost criminal enterprise and drapes a sinister cloak on almost any routine government activity.

This anti-tax fervor always claims the taxpayer as victim. Like no taxpayer ever drove on a road or went to a school or mailed a letter or called a cop or drank clean water or flushed a toilet or was defended by the Army or asked a judge to settle a dispute …

As though all of these things aren’t paid for collectively. As though they exist just for the taking, like trees in a forest.

If you don’t pay your taxes, no matter how many books you’ve written on the subject, you’re taking from those of us who do. And you don’t get to decide whether you’ve paid enough taxes, as Hart asserts, or when and whether to follow the laws.

It’s kind of like stealing.

But you know what’s really like stealing? I mean exactly like stealing?

Stealing.

In 1996, Hart drove onto state lands – which sell timber to support schools – and cut 8,000 board feet of timber to build a house. This was reported in Sunday’s S-R by Betsy Russell, who has done yeoman’s work tracking the Hart affair. The police report and court records show that Hart employed a variety of shifting explanations. He told investigators that Idaho law allows someone to cut logs for a personal residence. He said he’d heard that from a logger whose name he couldn’t remember. He said he went to a library to research state code – and lo and behold, he found that the code, given the right semantic interpretation, allowed him to do what he did without a permit.

No one shared Hart’s view of the law. The state appeals court, in upholding a judgment against him, called it “distorted, self-serving and irrational.”

“Hart’s interpretation of the law, however sincerely held, is utterly unreasonable and frivolous,” according to a unanimous opinion from the three-judge panel.

Hart didn’t return a call seeking comment. Neither did his attorney, Starr Kelso – a man whose judgment and wisdom you might weigh based on this: In Sunday’s Coeur d’Alene Press, he compared Hart to Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks.

The more apt comparison to Hart, as far as I’m concerned, is John McHone. McHone’s life has not been much like Hart’s – he’s had criminal convictions and other struggles, and he probably lacks the wherewithal to dodge and parry when he gets into trouble. No one lionizes his crimes as heroism. A year or so after he was released from prison on the timber theft charge, he crashed his car after drinking. He’s now a paraplegic, living in Stites, Idaho, on the doorstep of miles and miles of national forest land.

McHone tries to justify what he and his crew were doing out in those woods, but his arguments don’t hold any more water than Hart’s do.

They are, when you get right down to it, excuses. Even McHone seems to recognize that.

“It’s the law. (Hart) needs to be accountable for it,” McHone said. “What he should have done was get a permit.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.


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