The North Idaho Legislative Tour reached its climax on Nov. 8 with a banquet and evening of entertainment at the Coeur d’Alene Inn, a roadside motel near Interstate 90.
And while the food was good and the drinks were flowing, the issue of what to do with Athol Republican House member Phil Hart was simmering beneath much of the conversation. (Indeed, a small group of sign-wielding anti-Hart protestors reportedly greeted lawmakers as they pulled up to the motel earlier in the afternoon.)
Recently elected to his fourth term representing Idaho’s third legislative district, Hart’s troubles stem from a longtime tussle with the Idaho Tax Commission and Internal Revenue Service. A tax protestor and author of anti-tax tracts, Hart contends that the income tax is unconstitutional and stopped filing returns in 1996. Today he owes more than $53,000 in back state income taxes and penalties.
Following the ethics committee’s inquiry, which was prompted by Rep. John Rusche, a Lewiston Democrat, Hart refused to willingly step down from Revenue and Taxation Committee and filed an appeal. In response, the Tax Commission has filed a motion to dismiss, which will be taken up in the First District Court in Kootenai County.
On Tuesday, however, it was reported that House Speaker Lawerence Denney, a Midvale Republican, had reached his decision and would indeed remove Hart from the Tax Committee for the upcoming legislative session.
According to the Idaho Reporter, which is operated by former journalist and Rep. Bill Sali's press secretary Wayne Hoffman’s non-profit group Idaho Freedom Foundation, Denney opted to remove Hart after the lawmaker submitted a letter asking that he be taken off the committee.
His ouster from the committee comes after a failed attempt earlier this fall to argue that he should have more time to challenge the tax bill because the 91-day appeal period ended within 10 days of the start of the 2010 Legislative session. The Board of Tax Appeals denied Hart in the spring, arguing that his filing was too late to qualify for legislative immunity.
The hearing in the most recent appeal has been set for Dec. 7. In the meantime, as reported by the Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Z. Russell, Hart’s attorney filed a motion to disqualify First District Judge Lansing L. Haynes, citing an Idaho court ruling that allows for judges to be taken off a case without cause.
If all that wasn’t Byzantine enough, fellow North Idaho House member Eric Anderson, a Priest Lake Republican, joined the fray on Nov. 5 with his own ethics complaint, charging that Hart’s behavior, including his tax woes, repeated attempts to invoke legislative immunity and the 1996 theft of timber from state endowment lands to build his log cabin in Athol, is a violation of his oath of office to uphold the Idaho and United States constitutions.
At the Governor’s Banquet Monday night, few were willing to go on the record about the ongoing saga.
One lawmaker, speaking on background, hinted that Speaker Denney’s dismissal of Hart from the tax committee was a foregone conclusion—made all the more imminent with a complaint from a fellow Republican
Another statehouse source, who also requested to remain anonymous, agreed that Anderson’s complaint carries a little more weight than Rusche’s, and not just because he’s a Republican.
While Rusche’s issue lay with Hart’s attempted use of legislative immunity and longtime tax protesting, Anderson has focused on the timber theft and the ramifications of an elected official who swears to uphold the Constitution but refuses to comply with certain of its provisions.
It’s unclear how Anderson’s complaint will be dealt with, and the legislator wouldn’t comment on the record about conversations with Republican leadership, the impact of his complaint or where it puts him with fellow Republicans—except to say that he feels it’s necessary to speak up regardless of party affiliation.
“This House has to clean itself, and this problem needs to be dealt with for the protection of the institution of the Idaho House of Representatives,” Anderson told Boise Weekly.
“This is so important to me that anything that gets in the media about it doesn’t serve the ultimate purpose,” he added.
Following the banquet, as legislators were making their way to the hotel bar, their waiting cars or beds, Hart could be found in the ballroom’s adjoining hallway kibitzing with Hoffman and receiving occasional handshakes and back-slaps from well-wishers.
One, Coeur d’Alene Republican Rep. Bob Nonini, was overheard bolstering Hart’s spirits, telling him that he’s “a tough guy.”
Hart exited the hallway and made his way through the rush of legislators after seemingly ignoring several requests for comment from Boise Weekly.