Seven members of the House of Representatives met Tuesday to begin the process of determining if Rep. Phil Hart, R-Hayden, violated House standards in his dealings with the Idaho State Tax Commission. The committee didn't conduct much business Tuesday, but was able to be briefed on legal procedure by an official from the attorney general's office. Panel members also set the date for the first official meeting in which Hart's actions will be discussed more in-depth.
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.
Brian Kane, from the attorney general’s office, said that the duty of the committee is to examine Hart's action to decide if Hart used a loophole in the Idaho Constitution, a provision preventing state legislators from being served or arrested during session, too many times. Though it’s a provision in the Idaho Constitution, Kane said, panel members must determine if Hart used that loophole to give himself special privileges. "The job of the committee is to determine whether or not he has dipped into that well too many time, so to speak," said Kane. "But you must balance that with that fact that it is constitutional privilege."
The panel can take four actions after it finishes its work: it can dismiss the charges or recommend reprimand, censure, or expulsion for Hart. If panel members decide to recommend reprimand, censure, or expulsion for Hart, the full House must approve whatever the committee decides. Reprimand and censure recommendations would need a simple majority, or 36 representatives, to be approved, while expulsion would need a two-thirds majority, or 47 votes, to pass. If Hart receives a reprimand or censure, he could also be stripped of his assignment to sit on the House Revenue and Taxation Committee.
Panel chairman Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, warned lawmakers to communicate in a safe and protected manner with Hart, if they choose to speak with him at all. "We need to be very careful," Loertscher said. "We want to make sure we do this correctly so we don’t have to do this over again." He said that he and Hart ran into each other in late June at the Idaho Republican Party's state convention in Idaho Falls when Loerstcher had yet to be notified that he was slated to serve on the committee to evaluate Hart's behavior. Judging by his actions at the convention, Loertscher said that Hart knew of his appointment before he did. "He avoided me like the plague," Loertscher said. He described Hart as someone who is "playing it safe."
The committee was unable to do any deep investigative work because House procedure requires the subject of the inquiry, Hart, respond to a letter penned by Loertscher explaining the nature of the tasks before panel members. Loertscher said that he has sent a letter to Hart, but has yet to receive a formal, written response. Hart has until July 14 to respond, though he has the option to ignore the letter and not respond if he so chooses.
The panel will meet again on July 29 to begin its work. Loertscher said that for the good of the panel and of the public, all committee members must be present at the Statehouse in Boise for the next meeting. The majority of committee members phoned into Tuesday's hour-long discussion.