Last week, Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise, slammed Idaho Speaker of the House Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, for his selections to an ethics panel tasked with investigating charges against Rep. Phil Hart, R-Hayden Lake. Tuesday, in a call to IdahoReporter.com, Denney responded to Durst's claims, saying that he is bound by Idaho code as to who he may select for ethics committees.
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.
The controversy started with a post on Durst's blog penned by the Boise lawmaker last week. Durst criticized almost every aspect of the Republican makeup of the panel, including the geographic, professional, and political leanings of majority members. Durst said that because each Republican member of the panel served as committee chairman during the 2010 legislative, it could lead to a highly partisan decision when the final judgment is rendered on Hart. "This is significant because it means that all of the majority members on the panel are fiercely loyal to the Speaker. I am not saying this is going to have an impact, but I do believe it is worth noting," wrote Durst, who is looking to jump from the House to the Senate in November.
Denney thinks Durst should check with House rules before releasing critical comments. "I want to set the record straight," said Denney. "House rules dictate that I must choose from committee chairmen." Durst said the professional makeup of the panel, consisting of three ranchers or farmers, was also a concern. He said that Denney should have looked to Republicans Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, or Lynn Luker, R-Boise, to serve because of their past work experience in the legal fields. Denney pointed to the House rule that prevented those two men from serving. "While Smith and Luker would have been very good choices, neither is a committee chairman."
In fact, Denney is bound by House Rule 76, which states that "The majority party members of the committee shall be selected from among the chairmen of committees of reference of the House." There is no designated formula on how Denney was supposed to select three Democrats to serve, except that the speaker must take recommendations from the minority leader. Denney, however, can choose to ignore those suggestions and go his own way. House rules only dictate that thespeaker should select "from among the members of the House who are senior in service and experience." Denney tapped Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, to serve as vice chairman for the panel. Jaquet is one of the most-tenured Democrats in the House, having served since 1994. Joining Jaquet are Reps. Bill Killen, D-Boise, and George Sayler, D-Coeur d'Alene, who have served since 2007 and 2002, respectively.
Denney explained that of the chairmen available to serve - there are 14 - the four he chose - Reps. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, and Bert Stevenson, R-Rupert - were the ones who were willing to take on the task of investigating Hart. Denney commended the four men, saying that they will be fair to Hart, and are four chairmen who are "good, respected, and experienced legislators."