BOISE – A Senate Ethics Committee voted Friday to censure state Sen. Jack Noble for lying under oath and trying to pass legislation that would have benefited his family business without declaring a conflict of interest.
The unanimous vote of the six-member committee came after a motion to expel Noble, R-Kuna, from the Senate failed on a 3-3 party-line vote.
“I guess in my heart of hearts, expulsion seems really reasonable to me,” said Sen. Bert Marley, D-McCammon.
But when that bid failed, the three Democrats opted to join Republicans in voting for censure instead. “In my view, it was important that we agree as a team on a recommendation,” said Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise.
If the full Senate approves the committee’s recommendation, Noble will be required to stand in the well of the Senate and receive a verbal rebuke, plus lose any leadership positions he holds. He’s vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, a post he’d lose.
Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he agonized over his vote. Committee members initially were informed that state legislators can’t be recalled by voters; based on that, Goedde said he’d favor expulsion. But during the early-morning meeting Friday, the committee was informed that the Idaho Constitution allows all state elected officials to be recalled, including lawmakers. Goedde said that changed his mind.
“It ought to be the voters of his district who weigh his effectiveness,” Goedde told the committee. “For that reason I don’t think I could support expulsion.”
Noble’s constituents may have a tough time recalling him if they want to. For a recall, state law requires the votes to equal or exceed the number cast to elect the official for that term. Noble ran unopposed last fall, so his vote tally was high: 16,687 votes, more than all but two other legislators in the state, both of whom also ran unopposed. Plus, it was an unusually high-turnout presidential election year.
Goedde offered a motion to censure Noble and strip him of membership on all Senate committees except the committee of the whole, but ended up withdrawing that motion. Kelly said that move might leave Noble’s district with “less representation than the rest of the districts in the state … because of circumstances beyond their control, and how fair is that?”
Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, the ethics committee chairman, said, “There will be many who will criticize what it is that we did. No one really wins in these situations – everybody loses.”
Noble sat stone-faced through the proceedings, conferring occasionally with his attorney, former Lt. Gov. David Leroy. Several hours after the committee vote, he submitted a brief written statement to the Senate, saying he was “extended every courtesy, treated fairly, and given proper consideration.” Noble apologized “for the actions which caused this process. I stand ready to accept the judgment of my colleagues on the floor.”
The ethics panel will now make a report to the full Senate, which could accept or reject the recommendation. But even if the Senate agrees, the two-term senator would retain his seat, would still serve on the Agriculture, Education and Transportation committees, and would continue to draw his salary of $16,000 a year.
Noble’s ethics charges stemmed from a bill he introduced to change the way distance is measured between schools and liquor stores. He didn’t tell the Senate State Affairs Committee that he owns a convenience store across the street from Melba Elementary School, for which he and his wife had been looking into getting a state contract liquor license.
State law doesn’t allow retail liquor sales within 300 feet of a school, and Noble’s store is only about 40 feet across the street. But Noble’s bill would’ve changed the law so the distance must be measured from entrance door to entrance door, and that would’ve made his store eligible. Noble has his store on the market.
Noble evaded questions from the Senate State Affairs Committee about who was behind the bill and what problem it addressed, prompting suspicious senators to vote unanimously to kill the bill.
Later, Noble told the ethics committee that he never could have benefited because he knew all along that a state regulation prohibits partisan elected officials from getting liquor contracts. Two days later, he said that he “could have misled” the committee with those comments and that he only learned of the regulation the weekend before the panel met. The panel concluded that he lied under oath.
As the committee looked into Noble’s conduct, news reports noted other troubles: He had state liens filed against his businesses for back taxes, and a bank is foreclosing on his assets. Also, Noble introduced an unsuccessful bill two years ago to allow 18-year-olds to sell beer and wine, while three of his children worked in his convenience store, which sells beer and wine.
Sen. Dick Compton, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he was a little surprised the committee didn’t recommend expulsion. “There still will be people who think maybe the Legislature protected one of its own,” Compton said.
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