Members of the Senate Ethics Panel convened Monday to mull a complaint levied against Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, spending the bulk of their time digging into the details of legislative rules surrounding conflicts of interest.
Senate Democrats complained last week that a number of times Pearce failed to disclose his ownership of gas and oil leases on his property prior to votes on the same issue. The Senate passed a controversial oil and gas drilling bill on a 24-10 vote last week.
Just prior to taking that tally, Pearce, who chaired the committee in which the bill was debated, disclosed ownership of leases on his land dating back to 1980.
Democrats cried foul, saying that Pearce should have disclosed his leases when the oil and gas legislation came before his committee. When asked about his last-minute disclosure, Pearce said he simply didn’t think about the possible conflict. Democratic activist Alma Hasse suggested otherwise, sending media members copies of an oil and gas lease Pearce filed last November.
No specific details of Pearce’s case were discussed Monday morning. Instead, the panel grilled Brian Kane, deputy attorney general, on the definition of a conflict of interest.
Kane told committee members that several scenarios can constitute conflicts, but valid offenses include those that provide some pecuniary benefit to a legislator or a public official. Kane also said that instances when public officials vote themselves benefits better than those offered to the public at-large are suspicious.
The deputy attorney general told the panel that disclosure is necessary to show competing interests. “The sunshine of disclosure cleanses your interest,” Kane said, “because 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.”
The panel will dive into the specifics of the Pearce complaint Tuesday morning. Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malapeai, D-Pocatello, will, upon the panel’s request, provide more information about the complaint, including a detailed list of votes in which Pearce may have had a pecuniary interest and failed to disclose his conflict of interest.
The panel is attempting to fast-track the hearing as the 2012 legislative session comes to a close in the next week or two, but Charles Peterson, Pearce’s attorney, wants to slow the process a bit. During Monday’s hearing, Peterson asked that his client have time to prepare rebuttal to Malapeai’s allegations.
The panel took Peterson’s request under advisement, saying it might schedule an additional hearing in the afternoon to give Pearce time to prepare his defense.