On the second day of an ethics hearing to examine a possible failure to disclose a conflict of interest by Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, Senate Democrats offered a noticeable shift in rhetoric.
Tuesday morning in the Idaho Capitol was vastly different from the prior day in terms of what Pearce faced in ethics allegations. On Monday, Democrats complained Pearce voted more than 22 times on legislation without disclosing ownership of oil and gas leases on his property in Payette County.
During Tuesday’s meeting, that number was whittled down to “at least” three votes without disclosure. Democrats also narrowed the scope of their complaint, alleging that Pearce should have disclosed his possible conflict of interest on House Bill 464 earlier than he did.
House Bill 464, a controversial bill allowing for state control of oil and gas regulations, was passed by the Idaho Senate last week. Just prior to the vote, Pearce disclosed his ownership of an oil and gas lease for his property.
Pearce did not, however, disclose ownership during hearings in the Senate committee he chairs, as well as when he moved to keep House Bill 464 from undergoing changes through the amendment process.
And it’s that alleged failure that Democrats seized Tuesday. Senate Assistant Minority Leader Les Bock, D-Boise, said that the oil and gas legislation has the potential to personally benefit Pearce, a fact he should have declared prior the floor vote. “He had an obligation to his district and the people,” Bock said. “He did not reveal his conflict.”
Bock and Senate Minority Caucus Chair Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, complained that Pearce didn’t disclose that his oil and gas exploration lease is with a company that engaged in legislative negotiations about the bill.
“If this doesn’t represent a conflict, I don’t know what does,” Bock said. “It should have been disclosed from day one.”
But Pearce’s attorney, Charles Peterson, argued that Senate Rule 39, which covers disclosure of conflicts, doesn’t apply to committee hearings. The rule says that if a senator has a conflict, “such conflict must be disclosed to the presiding officer in writing or to the body.”
The panel must decide if that line applies to Pearce, as a committee chair, as a “presiding officer” in the Senate.
Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, disagreed with Peterson, saying it’d be a “long stretch” to argue that the Senate rule doesn’t apply to committee proceedings. “We’ll have to agree to disagree,” Schmidt said in response to Peterson’s assertions.
Ethics committee members must also decide if Pearce will receive special benefits from his vote. Peterson told the committee that his client’s lease is a standard document and is similar to documents given to other lessees. Specific information about Pearce’s land, the lawyer noted, are different in the senator’s lease.
Panel members will now examine similar Payette County leases to determine if Pearce’s benefits are extra or special in any way.
Even that process might not mean an end to the ethics process. Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane said that the committee would first have to prove Pearce’s vote on House Bill 464 has a direct relation with the senator’s land lease. “That becomes a pretty critical answer to the committee,” Kane said. “It all comes down to those causal connections.”
The meeting to examine similar leases is set for Wednesday morning, though at least one committee member argued against it. Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene, said the ethics complaint is purely speculative. “I’m troubled that we’re still here,” Hammond said.
But panel chair Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, overruled Hammond, saying the committee would proceed at least one more day.
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