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School of Hart Knocks: Rep. Phil Hart vs. Ethics Committee

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Athol Republican House Rep. Phil Hart—who BW readers might remember for his sponsorship of The Idaho Silver Gem Act, which would’ve allowed Idahoans to pay their taxes with silver bars mined in Rep. Hart’s home district—appeared before a Ethics Committee Thursday. To an audience that included dozens of supporters wearing pink, heart-shaped “Protect Idaho’s Hart!” badges, the committee announced their decision—split four to three along party lines—to partially dismiss ethics charges against Hart.

At the core of the controversy was a complaint filed by House Minority Leader John Rusche alleging two things: one, Hart used his position in the Idaho house to stall personal legal proceedings and “obtain special treatment” from the Idaho Tax Commission, and two, that Hart used his seat on the House Revenue and Taxation Committee to “obtain personal financial benefit" in his dispute with the Tax Commission.

Hart—an outspoken advocate for abolishing the income tax—decided to stop paying his taxes, opting not to file returns in 1996, 1997 and 1998.

In a written public statement distributed at the Ethics Committee meeting, Hart explained his extreme decision.

"The media attention my income tax circumstances have received lately, stems from a decision I made 15 years ago to challenge the federal income tax. I do not regret at all having done that. However, if I were to do it all over again, I would definitely go about it differently. Tuition can be expensive in the school of hard knocks."

That "tuition" amounted to more than $50,000 in delinquent state taxes, interest and penalties and hundreds of thousands in outstanding federal tax liens. In October 2009, the tax commission told Hart to pay up. But Hart didn’t issue his appeal to that decision within the allotted 90 day time limit and, come January, claimed “legislative privilege”—which states that legislators are not liable to civil processes during the legislative session and 10 days before the body convenes—to extend his appeal time.

Due to Hart’s current legal proceedings with the Tax Commission, the ethics committee Thursday postponed passing any ethics judgments, but Chair Rep. Tom Loertscher did call for another meeting to be convened once the issue is out of litigation.

The primary complaint addressed Thursday by the committee was whether Hart had violated House Rule 38, which states that legislators must disclose any conflicts of interest where the member’s “personal interest in the issue under consideration conflicts with the public’s interest.” The panel examined a few pieces of proposed legislation—including HB 454, Hart’s personal bill seeking to abolish the state income tax—and HB 436, a bill that died in committee that would’ve placed a statute of limitations on filing tax returns for previous years, which could have directly affected Hart’s case.

After the committee explored perceived "grey areas" in these pieces of legislation—with comments given on behalf of Hart by his attorney Starr Kelso—a motion was filed by Rep. Bert Stevenson and seconded by Rep. Dell Raybould, seeking to dismiss charges against Rep. Hart.

“I’m not sure that the complaint that was filed is specific enough that I feel comfortable in bringing action before this committee,” said Stevenson.

Vice Chair, Democratic Rep. Wendy Jaquet countered that motion with an alternate motion to recommend Hart be reprimanded and removed from his seat on the House Revenue and Taxation Committee. Jaquet argued that there is a public perception of Hart's wrongdoing that has adversely affected the legislature’s image.

“My concern has to do with a more global feeling that some of the actions of the representative have tarnished the reputation of the body,” said Jaquet.

Democratic Rep. George Sayler, speaking via phone conference, agreed.

“We’re dealing with a broader issue … how do we deal with the perception of the public that someone is misbehaving or behaving inappropriately as a legislator and protect that person at the same time that we protect the legislature?” asked Sayler.

But Raybould disagreed, commenting that it is inappropriate for the committee to make any actions based purely on perception.

“I don’t believe this committee should be acting on perceptions, I think they should be acting on facts and I haven’t heard any of the facts yet that have come up that would’ve declared that he violated Rule 38 … I believe that probably the biggest perceptions people are having is about Rep. Hart’s tax liabilities,” said Raybould. “That’s not this committee’s business.”

After a solid two and a half hours of discussion, the committee voted four to three along party lines—Republicans Loertscher, Stevenson, Raybould and Wills in the "yea" camp, and Democrats Jaquet, Sayler and Killen in the "nay" camp—to drop conflict of interest ethics charges against Hart.

At a press conference after the decision, Hart commented that the Ethics Committee meeting was, “overall a process that needed to take place,” but he expressed hesitancy that his legislative ethics were called into account based on perceptions alone.

“I think that is a troubling road to go down to have a disciplinary action based on perceptions,” said Hart. “I think this hearing we had today just draws some awareness on the issue. But I think as citizen legislators, we all do something else for a living … and I think we need to have some flexibility and some deference to the members to not draw those lines to tightly.”

In a press release response to the Committee’s decision issued later this afternoon, Rusche expressed his frustration with the final verdict.

“I am disappointed in the dismissal of the conflict of interest issue by a majority of the members of the committee and their implicit conclusion that Representative Hart’s behavior and actions were acceptable.”

Jaquet was also unimpressed with the decision, adding: "The Legislature’s internal ethics rules are designed to protect the integrity of the Legislature as an institution and to sustain the public’s confidence in legislators, and the result of this proceeding does neither.”

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