BOISE - Idaho Rep. Phil Hart agreed to give up his committee vice-chairmanship Friday to avoid an ethics sanction, and the tax-protesting state representative apologized to fellow lawmakers.
“If I could go back 15 years and make some different choices, I would absolutely do that,” Hart said in a somber statement to the full House. “I think I’ve learned through the school of hard knocks that I picked a pretty hard path to hoe.”
A special House Ethics Committee was on the verge of voting for Hart’s removal from the transportation committee vice-chairmanship when he offered to step down voluntarily. Hart was removed from the House tax committee in December after an earlier ethics complaint charged his service there was a conflict of interest.
Hart pleaded with the panel to “end it right here this morning,” saying he preferred that his ethics case not be debated by the full House. The committee agreed on a unanimous vote, noting that it was dismissing the complaint in exchange for Hart’s agreement to step down from his leadership post.
“I hope the best for Phil, I really do. I hope he can get things together,” said Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, who filed the ethics complaint against Hart.
Anderson’s complaint charged that Hart violated his oath of office by fighting against paying both his state and federal income taxes; repeatedly invoking legislative privilege to win delays in his personal tax fights; and illegally cutting trees on state school endowment land in 1996 for logs to build his log home in Athol, and then never paying an outstanding judgment in that case.
“I don’t have a pristine past and certainly you know about that,” Hart told the ethics panel.
Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, a retired state trooper and member of the ethics committee, said he thought Hart was taking responsibility for his actions. “I believe what we’ve observed here today on Rep. Hart has just been a huge concession on Rep. Hart’s side,” he said.
Hart said, “It’s been a learning process. The part of this that I drug out through my actions, I apologize for that.”
Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, told Hart that his actions damaged the good name of the House.
Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, a Hart backer, addressed the committee on Hart’s behalf, saying he wanted to provide legal perspective; Barbieri is a lawyer, though he’s not licensed in Idaho.
“We’re certain that there are going to be other complaints filed against Rep. Hart,” Barbieri said. “We know there are future complaints coming down reiterating the same kinds of facts as we have here.” He said he wants House rules “cleaned up” to avoid that.
Hart asked the committee, “How long will this go on? How many times might I be standing here offering to step off of this or that committee, and what will be left of my work here if I’m continually down here with another … complaint?”
Jaquet said it’s not the ethics committee’s job to change the ethics rules; it must deal with the complaints before it. After the hearing, Jaquet said, “I felt the remorse was there. … Hopefully he’ll get some closure. I think we sent him a message - let’s move forward, let’s get this done.”
Hart remains embroiled in both state and federal income tax fights; he recently filed papers in Kootenai County asking a district judge to reconsider his strongly written ruling dismissing Hart’s appeal of an order to pay more than $53,000 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest; a hearing on Hart’s motion to reconsider is scheduled for March.
In January, the IRS filed two more tax liens against Hart in Kootenai County; they include a $16,382 lien against Hart for 2007 federal income taxes, and a $14,168 lien against the trust that owns his engineering firm for business taxes owed from 2004; the federal tax agency already has filed nearly a half-million dollars worth of tax liens against Hart.
Hart stopped filing federal and state income tax returns in 1996 while he unsuccessfully challenged the federal income tax as unconstitutional; he’s since made partial payment.
Hart told the ethics committee he’s troubled by the process. “One of my concerns is that what’s happened here could have a chilling effect on people who might want to run for office in the future,” he said. “I’ve made some mistakes in my past. … I’m concerned that there’ll be people in the future who may not run for public office because they don’t have a pristine past.”
After the hearing, Hart said, “I think through life and the school of hard knocks, I know more
efficient ways to pursue the things I believe in. The things I believe in, then and now, I continue to believe in. But I would go about them much more differently.”
The ethics panel also voted unanimously to dismiss two citizen-filed complaints as unfounded and “frivolous.” One was filed by Hart supporter Larry Spencer against Anderson, challenging everything from what Anderson paid for his home to his votes on contractor registration; and the other was filed by Hart political opponent Howard Griffiths against Hart, objecting to Hart’s participation in a legislative meeting with the judge who’s hearing his tax case.
Hart said he still expects another ethics complaint, not from another lawmaker but from a citizen, to be filed against him. “I think the complaints will keep coming until the political effect of them is diminished,” Hart said.
House members said a rule change is in the works to clarify that only another House member, not just anyone, can file an ethics complaint against a representative.