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Idaho Senate ethics panel convenes for 1st time in 7 years

Criminal defense attorney Chuck Peterson, left, and Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, right, at Monday morning's Senate Ethics Committee meeting. (Betsy Russell)
Criminal defense attorney Chuck Peterson, left, and Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, right, at Monday morning's Senate Ethics Committee meeting. (Betsy Russell)
BOISE - 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, 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. “He has until 8 a.m. tomorrow … to respond in writing if he so chooses,” Mortimer said. “The purpose of this committee is only to determine whether a conflict of interest requiring disclosure exists or existed.” Mortimer added, “Our objective today will be to define and make sure that we understand conflict of interest.” The committee will meet again tomorrow at 8 a.m., he said. “I’m sure that is when we will start into the particulars of the complaint. But I think we’ve got our work really cut out for us even today to define conflict of interest.” Six senators, equally divided among the two parties, serve on the ethics committee; they include North Idaho Sens. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene, and Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow. Pearce disclosed last week that he has signed oil and gas leases on his Payette County property, saying he’s had such leases since the 1980s; subsequently, news emerged that he’d signed one in November with a company that’s been strongly backing the new oil and gas legislation this year. He made the disclosure prior to the vote in the full Senate on HB 464, the most controversial of the oil and gas bill this year, which pre-empts county authority to regulate drilling. Pearce has maintained that he wasn’t required to make such disclosures in committee, and that he really only had a conflict with that final bill, HB 464. Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane, who is briefing the committee this morning about Idaho’s Senate ethics rules, Idaho’s ethics laws, and the definition of conflict of interest, told the senators the Senate’s ethics rule regarding conflicts of interest specifically cites committees as well as the full Senate. “You’ll notice in the second line there that it includes the word ‘committees,’” he said. Kane said there is a “broad presumption” that a senator may vote on a bill, even despite a conflict of interest. “This preference for voting arises from the strong interest in insuring that a senator’s constituents do not find themselves unrepresented on a piece of legislation,” he said. “The rule requires disclosure, but once disclosure is made, a senator may fully participate in all proceedings of the Senate, through its committees and the body as a whole.” Kane told the panel, “The sunshine of disclosure cleanses your interest, because now it puts everyone on notice that you have competing interests within a piece of legislation, meaning you have interests as a private citizen, and you also have interests within the public trust. It lets everyone know, ‘This is where my legislator is coming from.’ And then they can make an appropriate decision as to whether the legislator has appropriately quantified and represented … that interest.” The decision then “comes home to roost at the ballot box,” Kane said, when voters can decide, with all the information, whether they believe a legislator is appropriately representing them. The committee ‘s options include recommending dismissal of the charges, reprimand, censure, or expulsion from the Senate. Senate minority leaders, who filed the complaint against Pearce, asked that he be removed from his chairmanship of the Senate Resources Committee while the complaint is investigated, but Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, declined, saying he wouldn’t take such action merely on the basis of allegations. Hill did, however, appoint the ethics committee less than a day after receiving the complaint. The Idaho House has convened its ethics committee several times in the past two years, mainly to investigate complaints against tax-protesting state Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, who lost a seat on the House tax committee and a committee vice-chairmanship as a result. This year, Idaho lawmakers spent much time debating possible ethics reforms, but none have been enacted.
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