Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, is being investigated by a group of his peers on a House Ethics Committee regarding his actions in using his status as a state lawmaker to avoid legal proceedings associated with recent tax woes. That panel, called for by House Minority Leader Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, is being aided in the process by Brian Kane, a deputy assistant in the attorney general’s office. Hart told IdahoReporter.com recently that Kane’s presence advising the panel is a conflict of interest and a breach of constitutional protocol because one of the agencies in litigation with Hart also uses legal counsel from the attorney general’s office.
Hart is contending that because he is in the midst of legal proceedings with the Idaho State Tax Commission, which also takes its legal advice from lawyers within the attorney general’s office, there is a conflict of interest between the executive and legislative branches of governments. “The legislative branch, consisting of the Idaho House and Senate, is bound to investigate its own matters,” said Hart in an e-mail to IdahoReporter.com. “To allow an attorney from the executive branch of government, and one from the very office that is prosecuting the same member of the legislature over at the Tax Commission creates both a separation of powers and a conflict of interest issue. The Attorney General should know better,” Hart concluded.
Hart has come under fire recently after a Washington state newspaper revealed that he had more than $300,000 in tax liens placed against him by the IRS and $53,000 from the Idaho State Tax Commission and that he may have improperly used his status as a state lawmaker to keep from paying taxes multiple times. The Idaho Constitution prevents state legislators from being served or arrested while the Legislature is in session. Kane, in the first meeting of the panel, said committee members must decide if Hart has used that privilege too many times during his tenure in the Idaho Statehouse.
Kriss Bivens-Cloyd, temporary spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, said that if Hart has a problem with the proceedings, he should approach her office about it. The Idaho Tax Commission is not using Kane in litigation with Hart, but rather is using attorney Bill von Tagen.
House Rule 76, which sets forth the standards on how ethics panels are to be conducted for representatives, provides some clarity on the matter. “The committee may retain such counsel and may hire such investigators as it deems necessary for the performance of its duties,” says the rule.
The vice chair of the committee, Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said that she doesn’t agree with Hart’s claims. “I think that’s a policy issue that we resolved some time ago,” Jaquet told IdahoReporter.com. She explained that in the mid-1990s, state government decided to use legal counsel from the attorney general’s office to represent Idaho’s interests, instead of hiring independent lawyers, the idea being to save money. When asked about the role Kane will play in the ethics committee’s proceedings, Jaquet said he will serve in an advisory role. “We’ve asked him to do some research,” said Jaquet, who added that committee members wanted to get more in-depth reports on Hart than what is being offered in the news media.
Republican Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, said that he was unaware of Hart’s allegations and that he is not able to speak about the hearings outside of official proceedings. Jaquet and Raybould both said that if Hart has a problem with the process, it can be addressed at the panel’s next meeting, which is July 29 in Boise. Speaker of the House Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, who appointed the committee, and Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, the chairman of the panel, could not be reached for comment on Hart’s claims.