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Eye On Boise

Rusche calls for ethics committee on Hart; Denney says he’ll appoint one

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, has filed a formal request for the Speaker of the House to convene an ethics committee to look into two issues regarding Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol: Hart's invoking of legislative privilege from civil process in his personal tax disputes over income taxes with the IRS and the Idaho State Tax Commission; and Hart's service on the House Revenue & Taxation Committee while pressing his own case in a state tax appeal that Idaho's income tax is unconstitutional. "Does he have a conflict, if he's trying to set aside tax law through his personal suit while at the same time he's sitting on the committee making tax law for everybody?" Rusche asked. He also questioned whether "by invoking the privilege in the manner he has, is that abusing the privilege of a legislator."

Under House Rule 76 (click below to read the full rule), Rusche's submission of the complaint requires House Speaker Lawerence Denney to appoint an ethics committee of seven senior House members, four from the majority party and three from the minority. The committee then will conduct a preliminary investigation, and if probable cause is found that an ethics violation has occurred, it can hold a hearing and make recommendations to the full House ranging from dismissal of the charges to expulsion from the House.

Denney, who is attending a conference of speakers of the House in Maryland, said, "I haven't officially received it yet, but when I do get the official one, I will immediately appoint an ethics committee and appoint a chairman." He returns to Idaho on Sunday; Denney said he'll likely appoint the committee by around the end of next week. "Really, I think this is probably as good a way to handle this whole thing as anything," he said.

Earlier, Denney had been sympathetic to Hart, who has invoked his status as a state legislator to argue that he should be able to appeal an order to pay $53,000 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest despite having missed a filing deadline. Denney had even planned to go to the Attorney General and make a case for giving Hart more time; now, he said, he'll hold off on that.

This year's legislative session began a few days after Hart's 91-day appeal period ran out on hisback state income taxes; he argues that legislative privilege should stop the clock and give him until spring to appeal. Hart also is fighting the IRS, which has filed nearly $300,000 in tax liens against him in Kootenai County in the past year; he stopped filing state and federal income taxes in 1996 while he pressed an unsuccessful lawsuit charging the income tax was unconstitutional. He's since made partial payment.



Committee on Ethics.--(1) The Speaker shall receive written, signed complaints from any person concerning misconduct involving legislative duties by a member of the House including, but not limited to, the alleged violation of the Rules of the House of Representatives and the provisions of applicable law. Whenever such a complaint is received, the Speaker shall appoint a committee on ethics of seven members, consisting of four majority party members, and three minority party members. The majority party members of the committee shall be selected from among the chairmen of committees of reference of the House. The minority party members of the committee shall be selected, after considering recommendations made by the minority leader, from among the members of the House who are senior in service and experience. The Speaker shall designate the chairman and vice chairman of the committee from among its members.

(2) The committee shall notify the person against whom the complaint was brought and shall provide such person with a copy of the complaint. The person complained against may submit a written answer to the committee. The committee shall make a preliminary investigation of the complaint. If, after investigation, the committee determines no violation has occurred, the complaint shall be dismissed. If, after investigation, the committee determines probable cause exists that a violation may have occurred, the committee shall so notify the person complained against. Such person may request a hearing before the committee, before which he shall be entitled to appear, present evidence, cross-examine witnesses, and be represented by counsel. The committee shall have the power to take testimony under oath and to issue subpoenas and subpoenas duces tecum in the manner provided in Section 67-407, Idaho Code.

(3) The committee may make appropriate recommendations to the House of Representatives based upon the investigations conducted and hearings held pursuant to this rule. In the case of a member of the House, the committee may recommend dismissal of the charges, reprimand, censure, or expulsion. Expulsion of a House member shall require the affirmative vote of two-thirds of the members elected to the House, as provided by Section 11 of Article III of the Constitution. Reprimand or censure of a member shall require the affirmative vote of a majority of the members elected to the House. Action of the House pursuant to this rule is final and not subject to court review.

(4) The committee may retain such counsel and may hire such investigators as it deems necessary for the performance of its duties under this rule. All expenditures incurred pursuant to this subsection (4) shall be approved by the Speaker and paid by vouchers and warrants drawn as provided by law from appropriations made to the Legislative Account.

(5) The committee may adopt rules of procedure for the orderly conduct of committee meetings, investigations and hearings, which rules shall be consistent with this rule and other applicable rules and statutes.

(6) If the written signed complaint concerns misconduct of the Speaker, then the duties of the Speaker in this rule shall be the duties of the majority floor leader.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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