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Ethics advice for new legislators: Using position for personal gain is the only felony specifically called out in the Idaho Constitution

Idaho’s newest state legislators are attending a “Law School for Legislators” today, with briefing from the Idaho Attorney General’s office on conflict of interest and ethics; from Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa on sunshine laws, campaign finance and working with lobbyists; and more. Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane told the group, “You can’t use your position for personal gain – it’s the only felony that’s provided for in the Constitution.”

Lawmakers who stand to gain personally from legislation must disclose that conflict of interest before voting on the measure, Kane said, and at that point may also ask to be excused from voting. But the assumption is that they’re required to vote, if they can ethically do so after disclosing the conflict – because otherwise, the constituents in their district are left unrepresented on that issue.

Kane said senators made 25 disclosures of conflicts of interest last year, and House members made 71, but lawmakers only asked to be excused from voting in a few cases. Kane, who has advised several legislative ethics committees in recent years, said, “No one, as far as I can remember, has ever gotten in trouble for over-disclosure. Every single scenario has been a failure to disclose.” He said, “Disclose – sunshine is absolutely the best disinfectant.”

On Jan. 14, an additional ethics session will be held for all 105 Idaho legislators, new or not; attendance will be mandatory.

Sunday Spin: What’s the infrequency, Kenneth?

OLYMPIA – The biggest challenge for this period between sessions – or at least the biggest one after convincing the state Supreme Court not to witch slap the Legislature for ignoring a fairly plain order on school funding – may be to define the word “infrequent.”

As in “legislators may accept complimentary legislative business meals on infrequent occasions”, which is what their Ethics Code says.

The problem is somewhat akin to the medieval debate of how many angels can fit on the point of a needle. . . 

To read the rest of this item, or to comment, continue inside the blog.

Seasoned hunter finds no ‘joy’ in the kill, but relishes the hunt

HUNTING — I traded emails a few years ago with a local hunter named Dennis regarding the feelings we experience when we are skillful and/or lucky enough to fill our big-game tags.  I've kept his last note as a reminder of the fence many sportsmen walk as we make the ultimate decision to squeeze the trigger:

Being a hunter, and growing older makes for constant reflection in my justification for pursuing and dispatching warm-blooded animals. Many of my friends have quit as they age. I guess we tend to become more in touch with our mortality, and find ourselves wanting to preserve life rather than ending it.

I harvested a nice mature buck this year, and although I hit him hard in the vital zone, I had to follow up and apply the coup de grace. I told my son just how I felt standing there, that it gave me no pleasure to put an end to that animal's life. Were it not for the great tablefare it provided, and the time I got to enjoy with my son in the field, I would have left the rifle in the cabinet and found something else to do.

Kane: ‘Always err on the side of disclosure’

Last year, Idaho Senate members disclosed conflicts of interest 36 times, Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane said during the legislative ethics training session this afternoon; House members made 50 such disclosures plus five requests to be excused from voting. Kane said while that might sound like a lot, 342 bills were enacted last session. That means there were 11,970 opportunities for disclosure in the Senate, and nearly 24,000 opportunities in the House. Kane said the numbers show it’s not a big burden. “Always err on the side of disclosure,” he said. “We’re here to try to promote confidence in government.”

Kane defined conflict of interest as “any private interest affecting your ability to act in the public interest.” He said, “If you have an influence that you naturally are going to lean toward,” disclose it.

Kane said too much disclosure has never led to the convening of an ethics committee in the Idaho Legislature. Click below for  full report from AP reporter John Miller on today's unprecedented ethics training session for state lawmakers.

Ethics expert: ‘Why would we not hear good ideas just because of who brought it to the table?’

Ethics expert Scott Raecker shared a story at the legislative ethics training session this afternoon about proposing a bill as a new lawmaker, and being told bills with sponsorship only from minority-party lawmakers don’t get public hearings. He had brought together various stakeholders behind the bill, and pressed his point – and the bill both was heard and passed. “Why would we not hear good ideas just because of who brought it to the table?” Raecker asked. Sometimes, he said, the Legislature’s culture needs to change, in order to create a values-based ethical culture. He said, “We shape the culture, and the culture shapes the character.”

Said Raecker, "It's not a matter of circumstance but of choice, and I would urge you to continue to choose wisely in Idaho."

Lots of attentive lawmakers at this afternoon’s ethics training session…

Ethics expert Scott Raecker, a longtime Iowa state lawmaker and executive director of Character Counts in Iowa at Drake University, has a big crowd of lawmakers from both houses at the ethics training session this afternoon in the Capitol Auditorium. Raecker shared his favorite quote from Thomas Jefferson: “Sir, I am going to treat you as a gentleman not because you are one, but because I am one.” Said Raecker, “I challenge all of us to raise the bar higher – raise the bar higher and do what Jefferson said.”

He outlined the “six pillars of character:” Trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.  “We care deeply about what we’re doing in public service,” Raecker said. “Our passions run very, very high. We need self discipline. … Our language is important and our actions are important.”

Raecker is a certified corporate ethics trainer with the Josephson Institute of Ethics, and served 14 years in the Iowa Legislature, including chairing the House Appropriations Committee and the Ethics Committee.

This afternoon’s legislative ethics training also includes sessions on conflicts of interest, the public trust and the law, led by Deputy Idaho Attorney General Brian Kane; on money and campaigns; led by Kane and Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa; and on communications, led by Kane, from the public records law and use of official letterhead to distinctions between official, personal and campaign business. At the close of today’s program, from 4:30 to 5, the group will break into House and Senate groups for a Q-&-A session.

Formal ethics training planned for both new and returning Idaho lawmakers

After a string of ethical lapses and questions about Idaho lawmakers' conduct that's only been increasing in recent years, new lawmakers will face something unprecedented when they arrive in Boise for their organizational session next week: Formal ethics training. And that's not all. When the Legislature convenes its 2013 session the second week of January, business will pause on the session's third day, as all lawmakers, old and new, are put through an hours-long ethics training session.

"Obviously, we've had some issues with breaches of ethical behavior over the last few years," said Idaho Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg. Hill said he and House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, decided to institute the new training, and the Legislative Council, a panel of legislative leaders, approved it.

"I think it's a good idea," said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston. "I applaud it." But he noted that a bipartisan working group of senators and representatives met for weeks during the 2012 legislative session without success, trying to reach consensus on new, tougher ethics laws, from an independent ethics commission - which only Idaho and eight other states lack - to financial disclosure requirements for lawmakers, which only Idaho and two other states don't have. Said Rusche, "I still think there's a long way to go."

The list of ethical lapses is long, ranging from matters that barely raised eyebrows to several prompting full ethics investigations; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

More Idaho lawmakers improperly using state seal in campaigns

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― After Democrats used Idaho's official seal on their campaign material, minority party members are now complaining that Republicans are engaging in similarly inappropriate behavior. Idaho's secretary of state warns candidates and lawmakers not to misappropriate the seal for election purposes, contending it's only for official business. Republican Sen. Mitch Toryanski of Boise incorporates Idaho's seal into his re-election web site. His opponent in November, former Democratic Rep. Branden Durst, complained to The Associated Press Tuesday, contending Toryanski's use of the seal merits reporting ― "in the name of impartiality." That's after news reports that three Democrats ― Sen. Elliot Werk, Rep. Sue Chew and House hopeful John Gannon ― sent a note emblazoned with the seal to voters Monday seeking to highlight GOP ethics transgressions. Toryanski didn't return a call.

Dems’ campaign newsletter had state seal

Three Boise Democratic candidates sent voters a campaign newsletter emblazoned with Idaho's official state seal, even though the secretary of state's office discourages people from using the seal on anything but official state business, the AP reports. Sen. Elliot Werk, Rep. Sue Chew and candidate John Gannon distributed the mailer by email Monday to south Boise voters. It aims to highlight what the candidates say are Republican ethics transgressions — and Democrats' push for stronger ethics laws. The email also asks for donations for two of the candidates. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Senator’s taxpayer-funded letter to prospective new district raises eyebrows

Kris Sabo of Sagle was surprised when an official state-funded letter arrived in the mail from Idaho Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, talking about Nuxoll's record and thanking supporters as she seeks re-election. “My gosh, she's from Cottonwood – where the heck is that?” Sabo asked. “If she's using our money to help her campaign to keep her job, that shows disrespect for our money. Nobody's going to pay for me to go out and try to keep my job.”

Sabo currently is in Idaho's legislative District 2, one of the North Idaho Panhandle legislative districts. But redistricting in Idaho will put her in the new District 7 next year, which stretches from southeastern Bonner County all the way south to the Valley County line at the mid-section of the state; Cottonwood is nearly a four-hour drive south of Sagle.

Though state senators can send out taxpayer-funded mailings, up to a $2,000 annual limit, this one's raising eyebrows because Nuxoll sent it to about 1,700 Republicans not only in her current district, but also in the new district she'd represent if she wins another term. “I just approached it as informing people. This is an informational letter,” Nuxoll said. “There might have been one negative comment.” She added that she sent it just to Republicans “because I am a Republican and I had to limit the number of letters going out to keep under my limit by the state.”

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, says he wishes he'd addressed the old district/new district issue with senators, but since it only comes up every 10 years – when new legislative districts take effect – no one thought of it. “We probably should have discussed it and maybe even got some kind of ruling from the Attorney General's office,” Hill said. “We did not do that.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com, and click below for the full text of Nuxoll's letter.

Hart paid lawyer with campaign funds; state says nothing prohibits that

Idaho state Rep. Phil Hart paid $1,000 in campaign funds in 2011 to Coeur d'Alene attorney Starr Kelso, who's representing him in his ongoing fight against back state income taxes; Hart lost his tax appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court last week. But Hart said the payment was for helping him defend against a series of House ethics complaints.    The fourth-term lawmaker faced ethics complaints over his tax fight and an illegal state timber harvest; Kelso represented Hart at two House Ethics Committee hearings in Boise in 2010 and submitted documents on his behalf.

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said, “There's nothing prohibiting that.” Campaign funds can be used for anything “related to being a holder of public office,” he said. 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.” There's 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. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

IFF Decries Senate Ethics ‘Gag Order’

And that makes the 2012 Senate’s session-ending ethics rule change that much more puzzling and worrisome. The Senate passed a rule that says ethics complaints are to be confidential until such time that the bipartisan ethics panel finds probable cause to move forward with a full-blown investigation of a complaint. Under the new rule, a complaint can be brought in secret, reviewed in secret and dismissed with the permanent promise of secrecy, so long as the Senate Ethics Committee lacks a majority vote finding that probable cause exists of an ethics violation. Indeed, under the new rule, it is a violation of the Senate’s ethics rules to disclose anything about the workings of a confidential Senate ethics matter—the senator involved, the nature of the complaint or the reasoning for a dismissal. Senate Democrats, who voted against the rule change, called it a “gag order.” They’re right about that/Wayne Hoffman (pictured), Idaho Freedom Foundation. More here.

Question: It's been awhile since I've said this. But I agree with Wayne on the Idaho Senate's ethics “gag order.” How about you?

Grading states for corruptibility…

Washington is among the least “corruptible” states in the nation, while Idaho placed 40th out of 50 in a scorecard released Monday, reports S-R reporter Jim Camden. Two watchdog organizations, the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity joined with Public Radio International and journalists around the country to score the states on some 330 points involving a wide array of government activities. (Disclosure here: I was the Idaho reporter on this project.) The scores were then tallied, and letter grades assigned; no state got an A. Washington ranked third in the nation.

Idaho, by contrast, got As for its redistricting and internal audit processes, but Fs for a lack of laws that allow residents to keep its executive and legislative officials accountable, determine whether its civil service and pension fund are well managed, and having no agency assigned to monitor or enforce ethics laws. Idaho's overall grade was a D-minus; you can read Camden's full story here at spokesman.com; see Idaho's full report card here, and read my full report here for the State Integrity Investigation.

Senate Convenes Ethics Committee

The Idaho Senate has convened its Ethics Committee this morning, for the first time in seven years, to review a conflict-of-interest complaint against Senate Resources Chairman Monty Pearce (pictured), 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; was part of the team defending Sami al-Hussayen against terrorism charges and defended 14-year-old Zachary Neagle on charges of murdering his father. Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, Ethics Committee chairman announced that as required by Senate rule, he has notified Pearce in writing of the ethics complaint against him, for failing to disclose a conflict of interest through 22 votes in committee and in the full Senate on oil and gas drilling legislation/Betsy Russell, Eye On Boise. More here.

Question: Any prediction on the outcome?

Dems Claim Senate Ethics Violation

Idaho's Senate minority leadership has filed an ethics complaint against Senate Resources Chairman Monty Pearce (pictured), R-New Plymouth, alleging that he voted 22 times on oil and gas issues before finally disclosing, before the Senate's final vote on HB 464, that he had a conflict of interest in that he had oil and gas leases on his land in Payette County. Senate ethics rules permit senators to vote despite a conflict, after having disclosed it. Pearce told Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker today 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 Barker. “I vote on water rights and I’ve got water rights”/Betsy Russell, Eye On Boise. More here.

Question: What chance does an ethics complain from Democrats have to get traction in the Idaho Legislature — slim or none?

Idaho Dems, GOP agree to negotiate full slate of ethics reforms

This morning, minority Democrats in the Idaho Legislature announced three new ethics reform proposals and called on Republicans to work with them on the bills - and by this afternoon, the Republicans had agreed. The Democrats called for requiring financial disclosure from public and elected officials in the state, something only Idaho and two other states lack; a bill to impose a one-year wait before former lawmakers or other public officials could register as lobbyists; and a whistleblower hotline law for state employees. The proposals came on the heels of the Democrats' call for Idaho to create an independent ethics commission; GOP leaders agreed, and both sides have formed a bipartisan working group to draft a consensus bill.

On Tuesday, House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill both said they'd like the working group to also consider the three issues Democrats highlighted. “I think the working group ought to discuss those things, see if they can come up with suggestions,” Hill said. "I'd just encourage it." Denney said he's open to the ideas, including the one-year lobbying restriction. “I don't have a problem with that," he said. "Let's hear it.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Boss Denney Now Ethics Cop? C’mon

It's breathtaking to watch how Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, (pictured) has found the religion of ethics reform. Last week, Denney said he'd support political ethics bills the Democratic minority is pursuing. It was all good words, good works and "come to Jesus."  Then Friday, Boss Denney said two can play this "culture of corruption" game, responding to state Democratic Chairman Larry Grant's blast at the GOP. So Denney began lobbing water balloons at Democratic legislators. One, he said, used a state computer to solicit campaign contributions. Another, he said, used a state computer to forward employee complaints against a state commission chairman to influence another political contest. …  Let it be said that using taxpayer resources on partisan campaigns is a no-no. But Boss Denney, the new ethics cop?/Marty Trillhaase, Lewiston Tribune. More here.

Question: Do you think House Speaker Lawerence Denney's commitment to ethics reform this year is sincere — or a matter of getting people off his back?

Dems announce three more ethics reform bills, ask GOP to work with them

Legislative Democrats today announced that they'll be proposing three additional ethics reform bills: A financial disclosure bill dubbed the "Conflict of Interest Act;" a revolving-door bill called the "Lobbyist Restriction Act" that would impose a one-year waiting period before public officials or legislators could register as lobbyists; and a "Whistleblower Reporting & Protection Act," which would strengthen Idaho's whistleblower law by adding a telephone hotline and online reporting for active or former state employees to report concerns without fear of retaliation. Complaints received under that act would be referred to the new independent ethics commission that both parties are working this year to create.

Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, said the Democrats are hoping that Republicans will join them in working on all three bills plus the ethics commission bill, through the bipartisan working group that's been appointed to work out a bipartisan ethics commission bill. That working group, with two members from each party in each house, likely will hold its first meeting tomorrow morning.

"The ethics commission is only the first critical step in the right direction," Malepeai said. "Idaho still lags significantly behind other states in demonstrating to people that we value integrity so much that we make it the law of the land." He noted that Democrats have been pushing for ethics reforms since 2005, but nothing has passed, though a bipartisan financial disclosure bill passed the Senate unanimously in 2009 before dying without a hearing in the House; the Democrats' proposed new disclosure bill will be "slightly more restrictive" than the 2009 measure, Malepeai said. He said Idahoans are losing trust in their lawmakers. "The need … has never been greater, and the time for reform is now," he said.

‘Corruption’ Rhetoric Miffs Denney

Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney (pictured) is lashing back at some Democrats who have been criticizing what they call a “culture of corruption” among Republican officials, saying some Democratic lawmakers, too, have stepped across ethical lines. “Both sides – Republicans and Democrats – make mistakes or even cross the line into the camp of ethical lapses of judgment,” Denney  wrote in a statement. “Both sides are looking at reforming the process to, as is best possible, reduce the chance of partisanship when looking into complaints of ethical violations”/Betsy Russell, Eye On Boise. More here.

Question: Do you think there's a "culture of corruption" in the Idaho Legislature?

Idaho Dems: Otter Ignored Ethics

It is unfortunate that the “new normal” the Governor spoke of today, doesn’t include addressing the culture of corruption that is tolerated by our GOP leadership. The first item of business that the 2012 Idaho Legislature needs to address should be cleaning house. While we are pleased that Governor Otter has finally joined the Idaho Democratic Party in addressing Idahoans top priorities such as job creation, education and healthcare, the most important part of today’s State of the State address was what he didn’t say.  He did not say anything about ethics.  The Majority Party needs to get their house in order and then they can move on to to the important issues of job creation, the health care exchange, and budget discussions. Idaho Democratic legislators have been pushing for this since 2005/Idaho Democratic Party news release. More here.

Question: Should Gov. Otter have included a statement re: legislative ethics in his State of the State message?

Otter, Solons Hope To Restore Trust

The crisis of confidence that’s left Congress with record-low ratings has infected Idaho government, and top leaders are sensitive to the dismay. Meeting with reporters at the Capitol on Thursday, Gov. Butch Otter and legislative leaders took pains to show they’re engaged, doing the public’s work and open to ethics reforms that until now got no traction. House Speaker Lawerence Denney (pictured) — oft-criticized for letting tax scofflaw Rep. Phil Hart off easy — warmed to a Democratic proposal to make Idaho the 42nd state with an independent ethics commission. Currently, lawmakers may be scrutinized if a complaint is raised by a colleague. The only arbiter is a committee of legislators. “Having the public have the confidence that we did the right thing (is important),” Denney said. “If there were an independent body to look at the facts, it might actually be a good thing”/Dan Popkey, Idaho Statesman. More here.

Question: What can Gov. Butch Otter and legislative leadership in Idaho do to restore trust in the Idaho Legislature and state government?

Read more here: http://www.idahostatesman.com/2012/01/06/1941687/restoring-trust-becomes-bipartisan.html#storylink=latest#storylink=cpy

Grant calls on Loertscher to resign

Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Larry Grant is calling on House State Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, to resign from the Legislature, citing Loertscher's killing of a bill proposed by Idaho highway districts to require a public hearing before a public road is vacated, shortly before he filed a lawsuit seeking to declare a road on his land private. “Loertscher’s actions are highly suspicious,” Grant said.  “It certainly appears he has used his office for personal advantage." House Speaker Lawerence Denney, who assigned the bill to Loertscher's committee at his request, rather than to the Transportation Committee, has declined thus far to call for an ethics committee to investigate the issue, though any House member may request one. Click below for the party's full news release.

Denney says he won’t call for ethics committee on Loertscher road scandal

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho's House Speaker says he will not call for an ethics investigation into whether Rep. Tom Loertscher benefited personally from a bill he helped kill during the 2011 Legislature. Speaker Lawerence Denney said Thursday he doesn't believe Loertscher acted inappropriately or gained financially by burying a bill designed to clarify the process of abandoning public roads. Loertscher is a Republican from Iona and is suing in state court to have old roads that provide public access across his ranch declared private. But last week, the Post Register reported that Loertscher took his case to court weeks after using his authority as chairman of the State Affairs Committee to derail a bill that would have required counties to hold public hearings before vacating roads. Idaho law also allows individual House members to request an ethics investigation.

Hart: ‘I think the complaints will keep coming’

Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, said his decision to voluntarily step down as vice-chairman of the House Transportation Committee - in an effort to avoid an ethics vote removing him from the post - was the right step to take, a day after he apologized to the House for his ethics issues. "I'm glad it's resolved," Hart said. "I think it made it easier for the committee to wrap it up."

Hart said he still expects another ethics complaint, not from another lawmaker but from a citizen, to be filed against him. "I think the complaints will keep coming until the political effect of them is diminished," Hart said.

Hart remains embroiled in both state and federal income tax fights; he recently filed papers in Kootenai County asking a district judge to reconsider his strongly written ruling dismissing Hart's appeal of an order to pay more than $53,000 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest; a hearing on Hart's motion to reconsider is scheduled for March. Also in January, the IRS filed two more tax liens against Hart in Kootenai County; they include a $16,382 lien against Hart for 2007 federal income taxes, and a $14,168 lien against the trust that owns his engineering firm for business taxes owed from 2004; the federal tax agency already has filed nearly a half-million dollars worth of tax liens against Hart.

Ethics committee emerges, takes break

The House Ethics Committee has come out of executive session after nearly a full hour. Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said panel members need a break, so they're going to go at ease for about 10 minutes. "We will take up in open session at 10 after the hour," he said.

House Ethics Committee investigating Hart sets Friday meeting

The House Ethics Committee, which has pending before it a complaint filed against Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, has set a meeting for Friday morning at 8, with an executive session to be followed by an open meeting. The panel will meet in room EW 40 on the lower level of the state Capitol. Pending against Hart is a complaint, filed by Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, charging that Hart violated his oath of office by fighting state and federal income taxes; repeatedly invoking legislative privilege in his personal tax fights; and illegally cutting trees from state school endowment land, using them to build his log home in Athol and never paying an outstanding judgment in the case.

In addition to that complaint, the committee also has received two citizen complaints, one from North Idaho political activist Larry Spencer, a Hart supporter, targeting Anderson; and the other from Hayden businessman Howard Griffiths, a former write-in candidate against Hart, questioning Hart's participation in a legislative meeting with judges including the one before whom Hart is currently pressing his state income tax appeal.

New ethics complaint targets Rep. Hart

Yet another ethics complaint has been filed against Idaho Rep. Phil Hart, this one by the write-in candidate who unsuccessfully ran against him in November. Hayden businessman Howard Griffiths, who garnered 25 percent of the vote for his write-in bid, sent in an ethics complaint even though officials say only House members can file those; earlier, another North Idaho resident, Larry Spencer, did the same, filing an ethics complaint against another North Idaho representative who had filed his own complaint against Hart.

Griffiths' complaint focuses on Hart's participation in a meeting between local judges and North Idaho lawmakers, at a time when he had his own tax appeal pending before one of the judges making the presentations. Hart's appeal of an order to pay more than $53,000 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest was rejected by 1st District Judge John Mitchell on Dec. 8; Hart filed a motion for reconsideration two weeks later and has a hearing before Mitchell scheduled for March.

Griffiths said it was unethical for Hart to go hear the judge's requests for funding and other consideration from the Legislature when he had his own matter before the same judge. "Here's Hart in the front row looking right at 'em," Griffiths said. "The whole thing is, it's mind-boggling."

House Speaker Lawerence Denney said he received Griffiths' complaint and forwarded it to House Ethics Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, who plans to convene a meeting of the Ethics Committee next week. "I've got a perfectly good ethics committee - they might just as well be busy," Denney said. As for Hart's participation in the meeting with the judges, Denney said, "I don't think it's inappropriate, but let's let the ethics committee look. I suspect that if they think there's probable cause, that there will be a complaint brought by a legislator." You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Kidney-for-parole raises ethical debate


JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A debate is unfolding over an unusual offer from Mississippi's governor: He will free two sisters imprisoned for an armed robbery that netted $11, but one woman's release requires her to donate her kidney to the other.

The condition is alarming some experts, who have raised legal and ethical questions. Among them: If it turns out the sisters aren't a good tissue match, does that mean the healthy one goes back to jail?

Gov. Haley Barbour's (left) decision to suspend the life sentences of Jamie and Gladys Scott was applauded by civil rights organizations and the women's attorney, who have long said the sentences were too harsh for the crime.

The sisters are black, and their case has been a cause celebre in the state's African-American community.

 The Scotts were convicted in 1994 of leading two men into an ambush in central Mississippi the year before. Three teenagers hit each man in the head with a shotgun and took their wallets — making off with only $11, the sisters' attorney said.

 After 16 years in prison, Jamie Scott, 36, is on daily dialysis, which officials say costs the state about $200,000 a year.

 Barbour agreed to release her because of her medical condition, but 38-year-old Gladys Scott's release order says one of the conditions she must meet is to donate the kidney within one year.

The idea to donate the kidney was Gladys Scott's and she volunteered to do it in her petition for early release.

National NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous (right) thanked Barbour on Thursday after meeting him at the state capital in Jackson, calling his decision "a shining example" of the way a governor should use the power of clemency.

Others aren't so sure.

Arthur Caplan, the director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied transplants and their legal and ethical ramifications for about 25 years. He said he's never heard of anything like this.

Even though Gladys Scott proposed the idea in her petition for an early release and volunteered to donate the organ, Caplan said, it is against the law to buy and sell organs or to force people to give one up.

"When you volunteer to give a kidney, you're usually free and clear to change your mind right up to the last minute," he said. "When you put a condition on it that you could go back to prison, that's a pretty powerful incentive."

So what happens if she decides, minutes from surgery, to back off the donation?

"My understanding is that she's committed to doing this. This is something that she came up with," said Barbour's spokesman, Dan Turner. "This is not an idea the governor's office brokered. It's not a quid pro quo."

What happens if medical testing determines that the two are not compatible for a transplant? Turner said the sisters are a blood-type match, but that tests to determine tissue compatibility still need to be done.

If they don't match, or if she backs out, will she be heading back to prison?

"All of the 'What if' questions are, at this point, purely hypothetical," Barbour said in a statement from his office late Thursday. "We'll deal with those situations if they actually happen."

Legally, there should be no problems since Gladys Scott volunteered to donate the kidney, said George Cochran, a professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law who specializes in constitutional matters.

"You have a constitutional right to body integrity, but when you consent (to donate an organ) you waive that" right, he said.

Other experts said the sisters' incarceration and their desire for a transplant operation are two separate matters and should not be tied together.

Dr. Michael Shapiro, chief of organ transplants at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey and the chair of the ethics committee at the United Network for Organ Sharing, said the organ transplant should not be a condition of release.

"The simple answer to that is you can't pay someone for a kidney," Shapiro said. "If the governor is trading someone 20 years for a kidney, that might potentially violate the valuable consideration clause" in federal regulations.

That clause is meant to prohibit the buying or selling of organs, and Shapiro said the Scott sisters' situation could violate that rule because it could be construed as trading a thing of value — freedom from prison — for an organ.

Putting conditions on parole, however, is a long-standing practice. And governors granting clemency have sometimes imposed unusual ones, such as requiring people whose sentences are reduced to move elsewhere.

In 1986, South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow commuted the sentences of 36 criminals, but only on the condition that they leave his state and never come back. In Florida, the governor and members of his cabinet voted in 1994 to reduce a convicted killer's sentence as long as he agreed to live in Maryland.

Whatever the legal or ethical implications of Barbour's decision, it thrust him back into the spotlight, after his recent comments in a magazine article about growing up in the segregated South struck some as racially insensitive.

In the article, Barbour explained that the public schools in his hometown of Yazoo City didn't see the violence that other towns did, and attributed that to the all-white Citizens Council in Mississippi.

Some critics said he glossed over the group's role in segregation. He later said he wasn't defending the group.

The Scott sisters' attorney, Chokwe Lumumba, said people have asked if Barbour, who is mentioned as a potential presidential contender in 2012, suspended their sentences for political reasons.

"My guess is he did," Lumumba said, but he still said the governor did the right thing.

Mississippi Rep. George Flaggs, an outspoken Democrat in the state legislature and an African-American, scoffed at suggestions that Barbour's motive was political and said the decision wasn't an attempt to gloss over the magazine comments.

Flaggs said Barbour suspended the sentences "not only to let this woman out of prison, but to save her life.

"If she doesn't get a kidney, she's going to die," he said.

Loertscher on Hart: ‘That bill will come due someday, then hammer will fall’

Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal, in today’s paper, interviews Rep. Tom Loertscher, chair of the House Ethics Committee, about the Phil Hart case and why Loertscher was the lone vote against looking further into the latest ethics complaint against Hart. First, there’s that business of Loertscher saying, “As legislators we all have something in our past.” Writes Vestal, “Nothing whets the journalistic appetite like the prospect of a Gem State skeleton. I called Loertscher to drag the truth out of him. Do we really all have something in our past? ‘Don’t you?’ he asked. Why yes. Yes I do. More than one thing, perhaps. But the question, Mr. Representative, is do you? ‘I hope not,’ he said. ‘I haven’t shot anybody or gotten a deer out of season or anything.’

Vestal goes on to note, “He said he’s not endorsing Hart’s behavior so much as doubting whether his committee is the place to deal with it. I think it is, but Loertscher’s not necessarily a white-washer to see it otherwise. ‘Judgment Day eventually comes,’ he said. ‘When he’s exhausted all his remedies, he’ll have a bill to pay or not. That bill will come due someday … and then the hammer will fall. That’s the way it works.’” You can read the full column here.

Hart wants to ‘get on with legislation,’ including new ‘sound money’ bill

After today’s House Ethics Committee deliberations, Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, said, “Well, I still think they’re looking for their allegation that shows that there is bona fide violation of Rule 76. … They’re still empty-handed.”

Asked what he hopes happens next, Hart said, “I’m hoping that I can get on with the legislation that I want to run in 2011,” including a new version of his “sound money” bill and others. The new bill will be “a similar concept” to Hart’s silver medallion bill from this year, he said, “although I don’t have anything finalized yet. There will be some changes from last year’s bill.”