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Editorial: Editorial: Idaho Legislature’s ethics attitude won’t change until public acts

Idaho Senate Democrats have filed an ethics complaint against Sen. Monte Pearce, R-Plymouth, for failing to disclose oil and gas leases on his property while voting on legislation and rules pertaining to same.

Predictably, Pearce called the move “political.” Now fellow lawmakers have been appointed to review the matter. Whatever the result, you can be sure that someone will call that political, too. We recall that some ethics charges filed against Rep. Phil Hart, R-Coeur d’Alene, in his quest to avoid paying taxes, were dismissed on a 4-3 party-line vote.

If only there were an independent body made up of nonlegislators that could pass judgment on alleged conflicts of interest and other matters of ethics. They could call it an Ethics Commission. But legislative leaders recently decided that after yet another attempt to address this, they just couldn’t figure out a way to adopt what’s already been adopted in 41 other states.

Pearce is the chairman of the Resources Committee and had cast 22 votes over the years on oil- and gas-related matters. Just before passage of a controversial bill on Wednesday, he finally disclosed the potential conflict, saying that doing so earlier had slipped his mind.

The bill limits local governments’ ability to restrict oil and gas exploration. Pearce is a rancher who says he has held oil and gas leases since the 1980s. Senate Democrats produced a lease that Pearce signed as recently as November.

This episode is the latest in a series of embarrassing revelations that led to the formation of a bipartisan panel to look into establishing legislative ethics guidelines and, perhaps, an independent body to oversee them.

Among the reforms needed are a strong disclosure requirement for potential conflicts of interest, guidelines for lawmaker recusal when issues that directly affect them are under consideration, and a “cooling-off” period between when an official works for the government and then lobbies the government.

However, legislative leaders declared recently that the ethics panel couldn’t reach consensus on these issues, so they would attempt to change the Legislature’s rules to address some of these matters. More importantly, they clung to the power of oversight and jettisoned the plan for an independent panel.

So, as usual, any findings will continue to carry the taint of political favoritism.

Clearly, lawmakers aren’t all that concerned with crossing ethical boundaries or being punished when they do. Pearce failed to divulge his conflicts during a legislative session where the issue of disclosure was discussed extensively.

At this point, it’s going to be up to the public to clamor for change. Without that involvement, it will be business as usual.

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