BOISE – Idaho state Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, sent a check as promised to the state’s school endowment for $2,450, but he called it a “voluntary donation” to the permanent fund, not a payment on a judgment over a 1996 timber theft.
That left the state endowment’s managers scratching their heads as to how the check should be handled. Revenue from timber sales on state endowment lands goes into a fund that makes direct payments to schools every year. Donations to the permanent endowment are held in perpetuity; only their investment earnings are distributed.
“It is somewhat at odds with his public statements, where he said, ‘I’m sending this money … to clear up any amount due on unpaid timber,’ ” said Larry Johnson, manager of investments for the endowment. “So I sent a letter back to his attorney asking him to clarify whether he really meant it as a donation, or whether he meant it as a payment for timber. But I guess if we don’t hear from him, we’ll take the letter at face value and assume it’s a donation.”
Hart sent out a press release two weeks ago saying he was sending a check to the state for the 1996 market value of logs he stole from state school endowment land to build his Athol home, and said, “I was mistaken to have done what I did.”
The trees he cut illegally near Spirit Lake in 1996 were valued then at $2,443. However, the penalty for stealing state endowment-owned timber is “treble damages,” or three times the value.
Former Idaho Rep. Bill Sali, in a letter distributed at a Kootenai County Republican Central Committee meeting last week, wrote, “In the end, Phil did the honorable thing and the state has now received three times the value of the trees.”
Hart actually has an outstanding judgment against him from the state Department of Lands for $22,827, because rather than paying the treble damages of $7,328 in 1996, he fought it in court three times, all the way to the state Court of Appeals. He lost each time, incurring additional orders to pay the state’s attorney fees and court costs.
Hart maintained that a loophole in the law allowed any citizen to take school endowment-owned timber for use in building a personal residence; the courts repeatedly disagreed.
Hart forfeited a $5,000 bond when he lost at the Court of Appeals. But he still owes $17,827. Though the judgment is no longer enforceable as a lien because more than five years have passed, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has called the debt a “moral obligation” that should be paid.
Johnson said voluntary donations to the state’s permanent school endowment aren’t common; he can’t remember ever receiving one before. “But we certainly welcome them,” he said. “I don’t want to discourage anybody.”
Hart, who is seeking a fourth term Tuesday and faces a write-in challenge from fellow Republican Howard Griffiths, is a tax protester who owes more than $500,000 in back state and federal income taxes, penalties and interest, according to public records. He maintains the income tax is unconstitutional.
Last month, a special House Ethics Committee unanimously recommended that Hart be removed from the House tax committee while he presses his personal tax fights.