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Thursday, March 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

Hart admits ‘mistake’ in ‘96 timber theft

Idaho state Rep. Phil Hart's log home in Athol, Idaho, built partly with logs taken from state school endowment land (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Idaho state Rep. Phil Hart's log home in Athol, Idaho, built partly with logs taken from state school endowment land (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

BOISE - Idaho state Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, announced Monday that he’s sending a check to the state for the 1996 market value of logs he stole from state school endowment land in 1996 to build his home, and said, “I was mistaken to have done what I did.”

Hart didn’t disclose the amount of the check, but the Idaho Department of Lands determined in 1996 that the trees he cut illegally from state school endowment land near Spirit Lake were worth $2,443. That’s just a fraction of what Hart owes the state, however; the penalty for stealing state endowment-owned timber is “treble damages” or three times the value.

After Hart was identified as the timber thief, he was ordered to to pay $7,328. Instead, he fought the case in court, arguing that as a citizen, he had a right to cut and take the logs to build his own home. He lost three times, ending in the state Court of Appeals, and each time incurred judgments for additional amounts for the state’s attorney fees and court costs for his “frivolous” appeals.

In the end, the Idaho Department of Lands filed a lien against Hart in Kootenai County for $22,827 in the case; that lien still is outstanding, but because more than five years have passed since the judgment, it’s no longer enforceable. State Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, however, has dubbed it a “moral obligation” that still should be paid.

Hart did forfeit a $5,000 bond he put up when he appealed the case to the state Court of Appeals, but there’s no record of any other payments.

“My logging experience back in 1996 was an expensive lesson in the school of hard knocks,” Hart said in a statement. “I was mistaken to have done what I did and will never make that mistake again.”

Hart said that in the past week, he’s “learned more about this case that I did not understand at the time.”

He said, “In order to clear up any question as to whether or not this timber was paid for, today I sent a check for the timber’s fair market value to the Idaho State Public School Permanent Endowment Fund. And since today’s fair market value is only one half of what it was back in 1996, the amount of the check was based on the 1996 value.”

Hart, who didn’t return a reporter’s calls for comment Monday, issued a news release late Monday with his statement, saying it was “regarding his logging timber for the construction of his personal residence from state land near his home in Athol, Idaho in 1996.”

Hart is a third-term state representative who was unopposed for re-election until this summer, when Hayden businessman Howard Griffiths filed against him as a write-in, prompted by the fellow Republican’s tax woes.

Hart owes more than $500,000 in back federal and state income taxes, penalties and interest, according to public records and liens; he’s been in a long fight with both the state Tax Commission and the IRS over the debt, and has maintained that both federal and state income taxes are unconstitutional.

Last month, a special House Ethics Committee voted unanimously to recommend Hart be removed from the Idaho House’s tax committee while he presses his personal tax fight. Hart strenuously objected to the move and maintained he had no conflict of interest.

Hart’s Coeur d’Alene attorney, Starr Kelso, recently compared Hart to Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela for his stand on his taxes.

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