Could there be a conflict of interest in the investigation into the alleged misdeeds of Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, who has been accused of using his status as a lawmaker to avoid litigation from the Internal Revenue Service as well as the Idaho State Tax Commission? Speaker of the House Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, says no conflict exists on the panel.
An attorney from the Idaho attorney general's office, Brian Kane, is advising the panel on the procedure for the investigation into Hart. Another attorney from the attorney general's office, Bill von Tagen, is representing the commission in Hart's case, which has led some to contend that there may be a conflict in having two attorneys from the same agency involved in the Hart case.
Not so, says Denney, who appointed the seven-member ethics committee. "I believe that Kane is and will be impartial in his advice to the committee," said Denney in an e-mail to IdahoReporter.com. Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, vice chair of the panel, said last week that Kane will serve in an advisory capacity for the committee. "I think that's a policy issue that we resolved some time ago," Jaquet told IdahoReporter.com. She explained that in the mid-1990s, state government decided to use legal counsel from the attorney general's office to represent Idaho's interests, instead of hiring independent lawyers, the idea being to save money. "We've asked him (Kane) to do some research," said Jaquet, who added that committee members wanted to more in-depth reports on Hart than what is being offered in the news media.
Hart 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. The Idaho Constitution prevents state legislators from being served or arrested while the Legislature is in session. Kane, in the first meeting of the panel, said committee members must decide if Hart has used that privilege too many times during his tenure in the Idaho Statehouse.
Kriss Bivens-Cloyd, temporary spokesperson for the attorney general's office, said that if there is a problem with the proceedings, her office should be deal with it. House Rule 76, which sets forth the standards on how ethics panels are to be conducted for representatives, provides some clarity on the matter. "The committee may retain such counsel and may hire such investigators as it deems necessary for the performance of its duties," says the rule.