Earlier this week, Idaho Speaker of the House Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, appointed seven representatives from the lower chamber to investigate the tax problems of Rep. Phil Hart, R-Hayden, who allegedly used his status as a lawmaker to ward off state and federal tax collectors several times. Thursday, one of Hart’s colleagues, Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise, said that he has several concerns about the makeup of the panel that will be looking into Hart’s past.
Hart is being investigated after a writer from the Spokesman Review revealed that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has filed more than $300,000 in liens against the north Idaho lawmaker. The panel, with its initial meet-up slated for Tuesday, will look into whether Hart has violated House ethics rules in the situation. Reports have surfaced that Hart used a loophole in state law – a provision which prevents Idaho lawmakers from being arrested or served during legislation session – to avoid IRS inquiry into his finances many times, including his first year in the Idaho House in 2006.
Durst, on his blog, said that he isn’t completely satisfied with the members Denney picked for the panel, particularly the Republicans lawmakers. “I do have serious concerns with the composition of the ethics panel convened by Denney. If truth is what we are searching for, then it seems to me that there are most certainly better alternatives than the legislators picked for this important task, specifically on the majority side,” wrote Durst Tuesday.
More specifically, Durst was critical of the age, professions, political statures, and geography represented on the panel. Each of the Republican lawmakers – Rep. Bert Stevenson, R-Rupert, Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, Rep. Tom Loetscher, R-Iona, and Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg – serves as a committee chairman when the Idaho House is in session. That, Durst said, could lead to a decision based solely on politics. “This is significant because it means that all of the majority members on the panel are fiercely loyal to the Speaker. I am not saying this is going to have an impact, but I do believe it is worth noting.”
The geographic representation on the panel, Durst argued on his blog, may be skewed against Hart, or at least people Hart represents in north Idaho. “Not a single member of the majority on the ethics panel lives or represents the 1st Congressional District. I can understand not having someone from the far north, given the local politics, but no one from the 1st District at all? I have a feeling this is a lot more meaningful than meets the eye,” wrote Durst. Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, will represent the 1st District on the panel.
Durst also ripped Denney for failing to use the legal resources of Republican lawmakers to construct the panel. With the exception of Wills, who is a former law enforcement official, no other Republican on the panel has legal experience. “While this certainly is a noble profession, I am not certain that it has the monopoly on ethics and law. These members are all good men who work hard, but are they the best fit, I don't personally believe so. Denney, in my view, missed a golden opportunity to take advantage of the legal acumen of Reps. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, and Lynn Luker, R-Boise, both trained attorneys and mediators,” Durst said. Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, who will serve alongside Jaquet and Sayler, works as an attorney.
Ultimately, Durst wants the process to be fair and urged his fellow House members to proceed with caution during panel hearings. “Ultimately, it is my hope that the process is thorough and fair. I hope that my colleagues on the panel do not rush to judgment, regardless of which side of judgment it may be. The process deserves their best efforts and so do the people of Idaho,” concluded Durst.
In a statement announcing the makeup of the panel, Denney offered no explanation as to why he picked certain legislators over others.