BOISE – The Idaho House voted unanimously 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 one against Hart – were 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. 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 codifies the practice of allowing the target of a complaint to write a response.
• 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 has 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 also spoke in favor of the rule changes. “The due process process is better spelled out,” he told the House. “I think there are some things that we were unclear about that are now made clear, so I’m going to support the bill.”
Denney said after the vote that he has 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.”