A House Ethics Committee has dismissed one of the charges levied against Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, but one count remains. Hart is under fire for failing to disclose his dealings with the Idaho State Tax Commission when voting on tax-related bills in the Legislature, as well as invoking a legislative privilege to avoid litigation by the commission and the Internal Revenue Service.
Hart did not speak at the hearing, but his attorney, Starr Kelso, spoke on his behalf, saying that that was no instance in which his client should have disclosed his private affairs but didn't. "There was no basis, reason, or time, for a conflict of interest to be raised," said Kelso. At issue was House Rule 38, a provision that requires lawmakers who might have a conflict of interest in a particular piece of legislation to disclose the situation to colleagues. For example, Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, declared a conflict of interest earlier this year when a bill determining the pay rate for his father, state treasurer Ron Crane, came up for a vote on the House floor.
Circumstances around two bills were considered by panel members. The two bills, House Bills 436 and 454, were considered in 2010, though only one piece of legislation received a final committee vote. House Bill 454 was a personal bill of Hart's, meaning that it never actually received a formal introductory hearing, thus there was no occasion on which Hart could have voted for the bill, or declared a conflict of interest with it either. House Bill 436 dealt with the statue of limitations and how long citizens of Idaho could files taxes if they missed previous years before they were deemed ineligible. Hart voted against the bill, which died in committee on a tie. Kelso defended Hart's vote on the measure, saying that if the bill had been pointed solely at Hart, it would be been a problem if the lawmaker didn't disclose details. Kelso explained that because the bill dealt with a large number of Idahoans, there was no conflict of interest because Hart was simply voting the wishes of his constituents.
Democrats on the panel, led by vice chair Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, focused on public perception of Hart's case. Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, chair of the committee, pressed Democrats and Jaquet for specific instances in which Hart should have declared a conflict of interest. Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d'Alene, said that according to media reports in the north Idaho area, there is a public perception of wrongdoing on Hart's part. "Perception is reality," said Sayler. "The perception up here is that Hart has behaved inappropriately. Our credibility in the Legislature is involved, as well as Mr. Hart’s own credibility." Jaquet agreed. "To dismiss this complaint at this time creates a perception that we don’t think there has been any misconduct and that we tolerate this kind of behavior," said Jaquet. "The behavior does reflect badly on all of us." Jaquet moved that Hart be given a reprimand and be stripped of his assignment on the House Revenue and Taxation Committee.
Republicans wouldn't have any of the perception argument. Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, attempted to kill all discussion based on perception. "I don’t believe this committee should be acting on perception, this committee should be acting on fact," said Raybould. "I think we really need to look at the facts here before us today." Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, called on all lawmakers to cast aside partisanship and vote for the facts of Hart's case. "I respect everyone on this committee regardless of what’s behind their name," said Wills. "I hope we can rise above it." Wills called for dismissal of one of the charges because he believed the allegations were too vague to merit any other move.
The four Republicans on the committee voted to dismiss one of the charges against Hart, while the three Democrats voted to give him the reprimand and strip him of his tax committee assignment. The other charge in the case, that Hart used legislative privilege to receive special treatment by the state tax commission, will be taken up at a future and unknown time. Loerstcher said that because Hart has ongoing proceedings in the case, any judgment by the panel on that allegation could cloud the findings of the commission. Loertscher told committee members that when Hart's legal proceedings are finished, the panel would finish its work.
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