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Ethics panel says Hart should leave committee

THURSDAY, SEPT. 23, 2010

House Ethics Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher and Vice Chairwoman Wendy Jaquet talk before a  hearing on the conduct of Rep. Phil Hart on Wednesday. (Betsy Z. Russell)
House Ethics Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher and Vice Chairwoman Wendy Jaquet talk before a hearing on the conduct of Rep. Phil Hart on Wednesday. (Betsy Z. Russell)

Member says conduct ‘tarnishes’ Legislature

BOISE – A special House Ethics Committee unanimously voted Wednesday to recommend Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, be removed from the House Tax Committee while he presses his personal fight against the state over back income taxes.

“Frankly, I think he tarnishes the reputation of legislators and he tarnishes the institution of the Legislature,” said Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, vice chairwoman of the ethics panel.

The panel’s vote came only after its GOP members offered Hart a chance to resign voluntarily from the key House tax panel, which originates all tax legislation in the Idaho Legislature. “If he would voluntarily do that, why then I think this issue would be completely resolved … for now,” said Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg.

Hart, who was participating by telephone, refused.

His Coeur d’Alene attorney, Starr Kelso, told the panel, “I am authorized on behalf of Rep. Hart to state that regardless of which direction the vote of the Ethics Committee goes, he will speak and discuss this issue with the speaker of the House and the committee membership,” Kelso said.

Hart didn’t return calls for comment, but Kelso later issued a defiant statement on his behalf questioning the committee’s authority to act against him.

“I don’t think the people would be very satisfied with that answer,” Jaquet said.

Kelso responded that in his view, the only issue before the committee is “whether or not there was a violation of ethics by the assertion of a constitutional provision. … I’m just clarifying the issue.”

There were two ethics complaints against Hart: Conflict of interest for his service on the tax committee while pressing his own personal state tax fight, and abuse of legislative privilege for repeatedly citing constitutional protection against arrest or civil process during legislative sessions in attempts to win delays in his federal and state tax cases. In late July, the panel dismissed conflict of interest charges against Hart, related to his specific votes on the tax committee, on a 4-3 party-line vote.

Hart stopped filing both federal and state income tax returns in 1996 while he pressed an unsuccessful lawsuit claiming the federal income tax was unconstitutional. He’s since been wrangling with both federal and state authorities over back payments; according to public records including IRS liens, Hart owes nearly $700,000 in back federal and state taxes, penalties and interest. Hart says he’s paid $120,000 in state and federal taxes since 2005.

He’s currently fighting an order from the state Tax Commission to pay $53,000 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest. Hart appealed the order, but the state Board of Tax Appeals rejected it, saying it wasn’t filed in time. Hart’s 91-day appeal period ran out on Jan. 1; he argued that because that was within 10 days of the start of the legislative session, he should have months longer to file, under Idaho’s constitutional privilege for legislators.

The board rejected that argument, saying even if the privilege applied, Hart still filed too late and paid a required fee even later.

Hart has now filed a motion for reconsideration, which his lawyer provided to the Ethics Committee on Wednesday.

Because the Board of Tax Appeals didn’t address whether the legislative privilege can be used in such a case, and no Idaho court cases address that issue, ethics committee members said they were reluctant to rule on the abuse of privilege charge against Hart, which they voted 5-2 to dismiss.

Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, voted with the panel’s four Republicans in favor of that motion. “I don’t see that we had a clear standard to judge by,” he said. “I certainly thought it was inappropriate, and cast a black mark on the legislative body, and I would hope that Rep. Hart would change his practice, but in terms of a clear violation of that clause, I didn’t see it.”

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