Rep. Phil Hart, R- Hayden Lake, 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. Wednesday, in a letter to members of the ethics panel tasked with investigation, Hart said that he is concerned that he is being investigated only due to recent news accounts. In an e-mail about the release, Hart said that he is ready and willing to tell his part of the story.
The ethics panel, chaired by Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, met for the first time earlier this month, a meeting in which committee members were briefed on the procedures of an ethics investigation. Loerstscher informed committee members they could choose four actions in the Hart case: 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.
The investigation centers on the constitutionality of his actions regarding the IRS and tax commission in recent years. 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 2005.
In the letter to panel members, Hart said that he disagrees with Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, the lawmaker who asked for the inquiry into the situation. "I disagree with the assertions of the charging letter. Nonetheless, I respect Rep. Rusche's right as Minority Leader to raise any issue of concern. I have no hesitancy in accounting for, and defending, all of my actions as an elected representative of District 3," wrote Hart. He also took a jab at the whole process, challenging the legitimacy of Rusche's claims. "I hope that when this proceeding is through the legislature gives due consideration to requiring that in the future all ethical complaints be clear and specific, and not based upon rumor, news accounts, and innuendo," he concluded in the letter. (Read Hart's whole letter here: Ethics Committee Answer 7-14-10)
In the e-mail, Hart said that he is a state lawmaker for a myriad of good reasons, not to avoid paying taxes. "I sought this office because I wanted to be in a position to protect our constitutional rights and the liberties of the people. I am seeking re-election now because, with my six years of experience, I feel I can be more effective in attaining those lofty goals." He also said that his fight is right and morally correct. "American patriots fight for what is right in the country and reject is what is wrong with the country. This battle for me is no less than fighting for what is right and just in the legislative arena and in the state that I have grown to love."
Hart's case will be taken up by the ethic panel again on July 29.