Post Falls Rep. Don Cheatham has sent out a campaign letter on a copy of his official Idaho House of Representatives stationery, raising questions about use of official letterhead in a political campaign; you can see the letter here.
Cheatham’s letter includes a disclaimer at the bottom of the page, saying, “All costs associated with this mailing, including stationery, envelopes, or postage, have been paid by Don Cheatham.” So it doesn’t technically violate the law against using public resources for private gain, including for political gain.
Cheatham vehemently denied that he used a copy of his official letterhead, and said there are differences, but declined to say what they are. “Are you sure that’s the official state seal?” he asked. He also declined to supply a copy of his official letterhead in order to point out the differences. Asked why the letter says across the top, “House of Representatives, State of Idaho,” Cheatham retorted angrily, “Because that’s where I work!”
For years, lawmakers have been strongly discouraged from using official stationery or other indicators of official state communications for campaign purposes, a concern that stretched back to before it was so easy to create a facsimile of the official letterhead. “This is one of those areas where it might not technically be a violation, but I think that there’s a legitimate question of do we want to encourage this sort of conduct or behavior,” said Deputy Idaho Attorney General Brian Kane, who advises the Legislature on ethics and other legal issues.
Kane said it’s essentially up to voters to decide what they think of the practice, which gives the initial impression that the voter is receiving an official communication from the state. The heading on the letter, under the state seal, is, “House of Representatives, State of Idaho.”
“To me, that’s probably the intent,” Kane said. “He wants folks to think that they’re getting an official communication, and it turns out to be a campaign thing – which is why I wouldn’t advise folks to do this.”
Kane said it’s the first instance he’s seen of this type of use of official Idaho Legislature letterhead during the current campaign, but issues have cropped up for years about the line between an elected lawmaker’s official communications with constituents and campaign activity.
“Every now and then, you have a legislator that maybe mixes his official newsletter with a campaign thing,” Kane said. “By and large, when folks have had that brought to their attention, they’ve said, ‘Oh, that was an oversight, I did not mean to mix those together and I will fix it.’”
Cheatham said, "I would in no way intentionally violate any House rules. Any reports to the contrary are untrue."
A first-term lawmaker, he is facing a challenge in the GOP primary on May 17 from Peter Riggs, a local businessman and the son of former Idaho Lt. Gov. Jack Riggs.
Kane said, “Our advice consistently is to keep your campaign persona and your legislative persona as separate as possible. Granted, they are elected representatives, so they do have some advantages with regard to holding that title and being that incumbent. Most folks make an effort to keep those distinct.”
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said he’d consulted with the Attorney General’s office about the matter. “In the future, I will encourage all members, including the new ones, to recognize this in a way that doesn’t give the impression that public funds were mixed with campaign funds,” he said. “That’s the underlying law, that’s the underlying issue, is you don’t use public money in campaigns.”