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Senate panel weighing Pearce ethics charges

Conflict of interest alleged in vote on oil-drilling bill

BOISE – The Idaho Senate convened its Ethics Committee on Monday for the first time in seven years, to review a conflict-of-interest complaint against Senate Resources Chairman Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth.

Pearce arrived at the meeting with attorney Chuck Peterson, one of the state’s leading criminal defense attorneys. Peterson defended Randy Weaver in the Ruby Ridge case and was part of the team defending Sami al-Hussayen against terrorism charges.

The panel is scheduled to meet again this morning; on Monday it asked the Senate’s minority leaders, who filed the complaint against Pearce, to provide more detailed allegations about the conflict of interest.

Pearce disclosed last week that he has signed oil and gas leases on his Payette County property, saying he’s had such leases since the 1980s; subsequently, news emerged that he’d signed one in November with a company that’s been strongly backing new oil and gas legislation this year. He made the disclosure prior to the vote in the full Senate on HB 464, the most controversial of this year’s spate of oil and gas bills, which pre-empts county authority to regulate drilling.

But it was after casting 22 votes in committee and in the full Senate on other oil and gas measures. Pearce has maintained that he wasn’t required to make such disclosures in committee, and that he really only had a conflict with that final bill.

However, Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane told the Ethics Committee that the Senate’s ethics rule regarding conflicts of interest specifically cites committees as well as the full Senate. Kane said there is a “broad presumption” that a senator may vote on a bill, even despite a conflict of interest. “This preference for voting arises from the strong interest in ensuring that a senator’s constituents do not find themselves unrepresented on a piece of legislation,” he said. “The rule requires disclosure, but once disclosure is made, a senator may fully participate in all proceedings of the Senate, through its committees and the body as a whole.”

Six senators, equally divided among the two parties, have been named to the Ethics Committee; they include North Idaho Sens. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene, and Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow.

The committee’s options include recommending dismissal of the charges, reprimand, censure, or expulsion from the Senate.

The Idaho House has convened its ethics committee several times in the past two years, mainly to investigate complaints against tax-protesting state Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, who lost a seat on the House tax committee and a committee vice chairmanship as a result.

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