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Hoffman: Legislature can prove it has moved beyond 19th century politics

Hoffman: Legislature can prove it has moved beyond 19th century politics

Wayne Hoffman
April 5, 2009
Wayne Hoffman
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April 5, 2009

Boise Rep. Lynn Luker has introduced a fascinating, simple ethics bill that stems from vote-buying allegations that emerged after last year's election.

House Bill 278 says campaign contributions made during the legislative session would have to be reported within 48 hours. A separate bill from Raul Labrador of Eagle would criminalize conduct by lobbyists who try to retaliate against officeholders who rule against them when setting policy or voting on legislation.

Both ideas follow a flap over Realtor lobbyist John Eaton's offer of a $500 contribution to legislative candidate Joan Cloonan, and then the withdrawal of the contribution after she did not vote the way he wanted her to in her capacity as a member of the Department of Environmental Quality board.

Such bills in the 2009 Legislature are miles away from the rough-and-tumble years following statehood. Lost to history is a fascinating story of legislative bribery from 1897. During the penultimate week of Idaho's 4th legislative session, Boise was practically consumed by far-reaching allegations of corruption and vote-buying in the Legislature's selection of Henry Heitfeld as U.S. senator and the ouster of incumbent Sen. Fred T. Dubois.

The election-rigging scandal culminated in an expulsion vote for two legislators and the forced removal of one of the disgraced representatives from the House floor. By the time the conspiracy had been fully exposed, several state lawmakers were implicated, and thousands of dollars were alleged to have been involved.

Ultimately, a House investigation committee voted unanimously to expel Elmore County Rep. Hugh Joines, saying Joines "did on several occasions try to extort money corruptly from different persons."

Another villain in the story, Rep. William Perkins, was deemed "highly culpable" and expellable although the evidence against him was weaker, the committee said.

The House vote to oust Joines was 26-16, a damning vote, but shy of the two-thirds required by the state Constitution to remove him. The vote against Perkins failed on a tie, 22-22.

The following afternoon, the condemned but still elected member of the House, Joines, decided to break his silence, interrupting debate on a bill to do so. The speaker rebuffed him and "ordered the sergeant-at-arms to remove the gentleman from the floor and directed the doorkeeper to refuse him admittance during the remainder of the afternoon," the Idaho Statesman reported. The Legislature adjourned the next day.

Neither Joines nor Perkins returned to the Legislature. In 1903, Heitfeld did not seek another term in the U.S. Senate. He lost a bid for governor in 1904 but later became mayor of Lewiston. Dubois was the Legislature's choice to return to the Senate in 1901.

The 1897 Senate drama was not unique to Idaho. Between 1866 and 1906 nine bribery cases were brought before the U.S. Senate, and 45 deadlocks between 1891 and 1905 delayed Senate appointments for 20 states. That changed with the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913, but occasional scandals (Illinois comes to mind) emerge from time to time.

Cases like the one in 1897 - and its more recent cousin, the investigation and near-expulsion of Sen. Jack Noble in 2005 (he resigned on the eve of the expulsion vote) - are not the norm in Idaho. Most legislators - past and present - are law-abiding citizens who perform a part-time duty over the winter and return home every spring.

But the mystique of "government on the take," smoke-filled rooms and sleazy characters lurking in darkened corners perpetuates.

And occasionally, allegations of misconduct are proven correct, as in the case of Boise Mayor Brent Coles in 2002. It's the reason why the public demands transparency, accountability and openness as the typical manner of running government.

The House on Friday voted down a bill to open every single state expenditure to public scrutiny via an online searchable database. Such a proposal has been talked about for several years but has never made it this far in the Legislature. Despite that loss, this legislative session could be a watershed year in terms of transparency and openness.

In addition to the proposals from Labrador and Luker, the Senate has unanimously passed a bill that would require state elected officials and candidates for state office to file financial disclosure reports, which would illuminate a policymaker's business dealings and any possible conflicts of interest.

And the Legislature has passed a bill to put more sideboards on how government bodies - such as city councils, county commissions and school boards - conduct their meetings in the open.

These types of policies are what distinguish an orderly, accountable and transparent 21st century legislature from that of a pell-mell 19th century legislature where cash is king and everyone is suspect.

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