BOISE – Idaho state Rep. Phil Hart paid $1,000 in campaign funds in 2011 to Coeur d’Alene attorney Starr Kelso, who is representing him in his ongoing fight against paying overdue state income taxes.
Hart said the payment was for helping him defend against a series of House ethics complaints. Kelso represented Hart at two House Ethics Committee hearings in Boise in 2010 and submitted documents on his behalf. The fourth-term lawmaker faced ethics complaints over his tax fight and an illegal state timber harvest.
Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said campaign funds can be used for anything “related to being a holder of public office.”
And while Idaho state law doesn’t specifically mention the use of campaign funds for legal defense, Ysursa said, “We look to the feds for some guidance, and they have in the past indicated that legal defense fund use of campaign funds was OK.”
He noted a prominent precedent among Idaho politicians: Then-U.S. Sen. Larry Craig tapped his campaign funds for more than a quarter-million dollars after his arrest in a Minneapolis airport restroom sex sting in 2007, including $23,000 for an attorney to represent him in a Senate ethics investigation. The ethics committee admonished him, in part, for spending campaign funds on legal and public relations fees after the arrest without first seeking its approval.
Hart said he checked on the rules before paying his attorney with campaign funds. “If you read the regulations, it’s anything that kind of falls in line with your work as a legislator is a legitimate expenditure,” he said.
Idaho law prohibits campaign funds from being “converted to personal use,” which is defined as expenses that would exist “irrespective” of being a candidate or public office holder. Examples range from mortgage payments to country club dues.
Ysursa noted that the law was strengthened in 2006 after questions arose over former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s use of campaign funds for items like haircuts and meals.
Hart faced three ethics complaints in 2010 and 2011. As a result, he lost his seat on the House tax committee and gave up his vice-chairmanship of the transportation committee. He also apologized to the House for his actions.
The payment to Kelso was 40 percent of Hart’s campaign spending in 2011, according to his most recent campaign finance report, which covers all of last year. He said he didn’t have much campaign activity because it wasn’t an election year. This year, by contrast, every seat in the Idaho Legislature, including Hart’s, is up for a vote.
The next set of campaign finance reports comes out May 8, just a week before Idaho’s May 15 primary election. That is the public’s only chance to see how candidates are financing their campaigns before the primary vote.
Hart is vowing to continue to fight a state order to pay more than $53,000 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest, even though he’s already lost five appeals, including the latest to the state’s highest court.
Hart also is the target of a federal lawsuit from the U.S. Justice Department seeking to foreclose on his Athol home for $550,000 in back federal income taxes, penalties and interest; that case is scheduled to go to trial Nov. 6 – Election Day.