BOISE - The Idaho Senate will convene an ethics committee after minority Democrats complained that the Senate Resources chairman failed to disclose - through 22 votes - that he had a conflict of interest over oil and gas legislation: He has oil and gas leases on his land.
Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, revealed the conflict Wednesday shortly before passage of the most controversial oil and gas bill this year, HB 464, as the state gears up for a wave of oil and gas well development in southern Idaho.
“We’ve been talking all session about making sure that we operate in transparency,” said Senate Minority Caucus Chair Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum. She said Senate ethics rules are “fairly broad and very loose,” and while serving on a bipartisan House-Senate ethics working group this session, she concluded they need strengthening.
Meanwhile, she said, “We are responsible. … The first line of fire is for us to monitor each other as senators, and that’s why we’re doing this.”
Pearce, a rancher and fifth-term lawmaker, wasn’t immediately available for comment, but he told the Idaho Statesman on Thursday that he had simply not thought about the potential conflict until the final vote, and had held the leases since the 1980s. “I vote on an animal cruelty bill and I have animals,” he told the Boise newspaper. “I vote on water rights and I’ve got water rights.”
Idaho Senate rules permit a senator to vote despite a conflict of interest, as long as that conflict is first disclosed.
Stennett, who serves on the Resources Committee, said, “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Sen. Pearce - I mean no ill will.” She said, “It was required by the rules to say that he has a conflict of interest, and he never did,”until the surprise announcement Wednesday during the HB 464 debate. “We want to follow the process. … We just felt like we couldn’t be quiet about this.”
Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, who also serves on the Resources Committee, said there have been numerous declarations of conflicts of interest from committee members this year, as the panel that includes four ranchers has taken up legislation on everything from wolf controls to landowner hunting tags.
The Democrats’ formal ethics complaint against Pearce said of his Wednesday disclosure, “This revelation was shocking to colleagues who had witnessed Senator Pearce repeatedly vote on issues relating to oil and gas in the Senate Resources and Environment Committee as chairman, and on the floor of the Senate without revealing his conflict of interest as required.”
Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said Thursday, “If they want to request an ethics committee, I have to put one together. … I would probably do that within the next 24 hours.”
Hill mused, “Maybe an ethics committee is the best way to determine … if there are violations out there.” The state’s conflict-of-interest laws are “fairly technical,” he said, and the case could touch on issues including “whether something applies to a class of people or to an individual,” and “intent or lack of intent.”
The Democrats also requested that while the issue is pending, Pearce be removed from his chairmanship and recuse himself from voting on “any matters pertaining to the oil and gas industry.”
Hill said, “We’re just trying to decide the best way forward. We don’t want to cover anything up. … We want to address it.”
Ethics have been a big issue in Idaho’s legislative session this year, and early in the session, Hill and House Speaker Lawerence Denney convened a bipartisan working group to look into ethics reforms. However, no agreement was reached on creating an independent ethics commission, which 41 states have but Idaho lacks.
Hill and Denney said last week that they still hope lawmakers this session will consider other ethics reforms, from Idaho’s first-ever financial disclosure rules for public officials to tighter ethics rules for both the House and Senate, including requiring ethics training.