BOISE - A House committee today approved a series of changes in House ethics rules, including clarifying that only House members can file complaints, and adding a clause covering “conduct unbecoming a House member” as an ethics violation.
House Speaker Lawerence Denney brought the changes to the House State Affairs Committee today, which, after many questions, agreed to forward it to the full House for a final vote. It needs a two-thirds vote there to pass and take effect.
This year, the House received two ethics complaints from citizens, one against Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, from Hayden businessman Howard Griffiths, a write-in candidate this year against Hart; and one from Hart supporter Larry Spencer against Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, who had filed an ethics complaint against Hart. Both were found to be without basis and “frivolous.”
“I think that those were both political, and that’s one of the things I would like to stop with this, by changing this,” Denney said. “If there’s a legitimate ethics complaint, I think we’re going to be the first ones that want to prosecute it.” Plus, he said if he received a legitimate ethics complaint from someone outside the House, he’d file it himself.
“When you get one that complains about somebody for complaining about somebody, I think that’s a little bit outside,” Denney said.
The ethics rule had been interpreted by the Idaho attorney general’s office as applying only to members already, because it’s part of the internal rules of the House - which apply only to the House. Denney noted that the Senate’s rule is similar, and instead of “any person,” it says, “any senator.”
The proposed rule change also “clarifies some of the things that we need to take care of so that everyone is treated fairly,” Denney told the committee.
It gives the target of a complaint the opportunity to write a written response, which already has been the practice; requires complaints to be kept confidential until an Ethics Committee has found probable cause to look into them, which is a change from current practice; and requires the Ethics Committee to meet in executive session until it’s found probable cause, at which point the process would become open. That’s in accordance with a separate House rule that already permitted closed sessions for preliminary reviews of ethics complaints, Denney said.
The change also adds a provision, which Denney said was added in consultation with House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, to cover ethics violations for “conduct unbecoming a member of the House.”
Rusche said that’s an important change. “Ethics proceedings are not criminal proceedings,” he said. “The purpose of an ethics committee is to protect the integrity of the Legislature and of the legislative process.”
That means some conduct that might not be illegal could still fall under its purview, he said.
“You can have a pattern of conduct that while not necessarily illegal, is very detrimental to the performance of the Legislature and people’s confidence in the Legislature,” Rusche said. That was something the House Ethics Committee wrestled with when it considered Rusche’s conflict-of-interest complaint against Hart last summer. “I wanted to make sure that was something that could be considered.”
A special House Ethics Committee ended up dismissing all the ethics complaints it received this year - including three against Hart - but voted unanimously to recommend his removal from the House tax committee while he presses his personal fights against back state and federal income taxes; and last week dropped Anderson’s complaint in exchange for Hart’s voluntary agreement to give up the vice-chairmanship of the House Transportation Committee, from which the panel was considering removing him.
Anderson’s complaint charged that Hart violated his oath of office by fighting against paying his state and federal income taxes, which he contends are unconstitutional; by repeatedly citing legislative privilege to win delays in his personal tax fights; and by illegally logging state school endowment land in 1996 to build his log home in Athol and never paying an outstanding judgment in the case.