February 15, 2011 in Idaho

Idaho House amends ethics rules

By The Spokesman-Review
Betsy Russell photo

Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, debates in favor of ethics rules changes Tuesday in the House that were prompted in part by three complaints against him in the past year; the rule changes won the unanimous, 70-0 support of the House. They include a provision covering ethics violations for “conduct unbecoming a member” of the House, something ethics committee members said they wished they’d had for the past year.
(Full-size photo)

BOISE - The Idaho House voted unanimously on Tuesday to amend its ethics rules in the wake of its struggles with four ethics complaints this year, three of them against tax-protesting Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol.

The fourth, filed by North Idaho activist and Hart supporter Larry Spencer, was against Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, who had filed one of the complaints against Hart. Under the new rules - which took effect immediately upon the House’s vote - only a member of the House can file a complaint against another member.

“There are two major avenues that people can voice those complaints,” said House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale. “No. 1 is called an election and that happens every two years, and the other one is a recall, and that happens immediately.”

He added, “Plus they can call my office. If there is something egregious, I’m going to take it to the minority leader, we will discuss it, and … if it merits response, we will bring it before an ethics committee.”

Both of the citizen-initiated complaints Idaho received - the one against Anderson and another one against Hart - were found by the House Ethics Committee to be without basis and dismissed as “frivolous.” Hart lost his seat on the House tax committee and gave up his vice-chairmanship of the Transportation Committee after the panel reviewed two complaints against him filed by House members.

The Idaho attorney general already had found that the House rule, though it said complaints could be submitted by “any person,” meant any House member, because they are the internal rules of the House. The Senate’s comparable rule says “any senator” can file a complaint.

Other changes to the House ethics rule include:

— It now specifically covers ethics violations for “conduct unbecoming a member of the House.” House Ethics Committee members said they wished that had been in effect when they dealt with the complaints against Hart, a longtime tax protester who also illegally cut timber from state school endowment lands in 1996 to build his log home and never paid an outstanding judgment in the case.

— It gives the target of a complaint the opportunity to write a written response, which already has been the practice.

— It 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.

— It requires the Ethics Committee to meet in closed 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.

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, spoke out in favor of the measure, HR 2. “Basically I think that we should have reason to believe that there is a probable cause before a public besmirching or questioning of reputation,” he said.

Hart himself also spoke in favor of the rule changes. “The due process process is better spelled out,” he told the House. “It was already there, but it was difficult to ferret out. I think there are some things that we were unclear about that are now made clear, so I’m going to support the bill.”

The change in ethics rules takes effect immediately; it needed a two-thirds vote of the House to pass.

Denney said after the vote that he’s received yet another citizen-initiated ethics complaint, and since it came in before the House vote, he referred it to the existing House Ethics Committee.

“It’s frivolous, I think,” Denney said. “It is from North Idaho.”

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