Job-seeking  legislator highlights need for ethics reform

Wayne Hoffman Articles

Because of the Legislature’s failure to act this year, political favors and gifts for elected officials remain acceptable, even customary. It’s still perfectly legal to ply Idaho politicians with lavish gifts. You are only limited by your imagination to give and possibly get. And why not be imaginative, especially when you’re hoping to ingratiate yourself in advance of some future need?

Perhaps one day you will need a special tax break. Or maybe you’d like to regulate your competition out of existence. Are such economic prizes worth the return on the investment of buying a legislator and his or her family a luxury vacation? Certainly. How about some jewelry, or an expensive bottle of wine? Why not! The latest electronics? Dream big, because there’s nothing stopping ya.

And for elected officials, why not ask for stuff — including a job? More on that in a moment.  

However, there are rules for such things. Or, in this case, one rule: Never connect your gift with an official action. Under Idaho law, the following is acceptable: “Sen. Jones, I’m impressed with your dedication as a public servant. Here’s a lovely bottle of wine you might enjoy — along with two tickets to Italy.”  This is not OK: “Sen. Jones, thank you for agreeing to support House Bill 200. Here’s a bottle of wine you might enjoy — along with two tickets to Italy.”

See the difference? In the first example, the gift giver has simply applauded Sen. Jones’ public service. In the latter, the trip and wine are directly tied to a particular vote.

Under Idaho law today, there’s nothing illegal as concerns supplying legislators, county commissioners, mayors or other elected officials with all manner of gifts — as long as there’s no connection to an official action, say, a vote on a bill or the awarding of a contract. Under Idaho law today, with the same direct-connection caveat, there’s also nothing illegal as concerns politicians asking for special favors.

Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, proposed closing this loophole. But Nate’s proposal was denied a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee, helmed by GOP Rep. Rich Wills of Glenns Ferry.

The recently-unveiled job hunt solicitation by Rep. Kelley Packer, R-McCammon, speaks to the problem. A year ago, after her husband was transferred to Boise, Packer emailed elected officials and lobbyists with hopes to secure a job.

“I’m reaching out to each of you to ask for your help in locating a new career for me in the Treasure Valley,” Packer wrote. No one can fault Packer from trying to find a new job. But elected officials have to be held to a different standard than your average job seeker. But Idaho law asserts no standard. Anything goes.

When considering legislation, is Packer thinking about her potential employability? Or is she thinking about what’s best for her constituents? Packer did nothing illegal. But, is it proper to ask for job opportunities from the very people who lobby you? Probably not.

That leaves her no less compromised than the elected official who accepts a gift or a trip. Had Packer promised to support or oppose legislation in exchange for a job or consideration of employment, that might be illegal under Idaho law. But she didn’t. Still, longtime legislators and lobbyists told me that they were taken aback by Packer’s solicitation.

More restrictive state gift and ethics laws are no substitute for good judgment. However, in the present Idaho political and legal environment, we have neither. State lawmakers need to get serious about closing ethics loopholes and putting an end to special perks for the ruling elite, lest Packer-like thinking cloud how public policy is made in Idaho.