The Idaho Senate's new ethics rules — allowing lawmakers to discuss preliminary complaints behind closed doors — will undermine public confidence in the institution, write Idaho Freedom Foundation head Wayne Hoffman.
The conservative lobbyist got it half right, in my view.
I agree wholly that the idea of a closed ethics committee runs counter to the principle of transparency in government. Bad move by Senate Republicans.
But Hoffman gives a total pass to one of the main players in the Senate's ethics saga from 2012: Monty Pearce, the New Plymouth Republican who chairs the Senate Resources and Environment Committee. Pearce, who has signed oil and gas leases on his property, did not disclose these leases until the Senate's final vote on oil and gas regulations — and after oil and gas rules and legislation had passed through his committee.
Writes Hoffman: "There was no conflict of interest. At all. Real or imagined."
If so, then why did the Senate ethics rules require lawmakers to disclose their potential conflicts upfront — during the committee process? That was the one thing senators got right in their ethics rules rewrite.
Here's Hoffman's column:
I never grow tired of telling forgotten stories from Idaho’s political history. One of my favorites springs to mind of late:
In 1897, the Idaho Legislature, just the fourth one by the way, picked Henry Heitfeld to be U.S. senator, ousting incumbent Fred T. Dubois. But allegations quickly surfaced that lawmakers traded votes for cash as part of the lucrative Senate selection process.
Ultimately, a House investigation committee voted unanimously to expel Elmore County Rep. Hugh Joines, saying Joines “did on several occasions try to extort money corruptly from different persons.” Another villain in the story, Rep. William Perkins, was deemed “highly culpable” and expellable although the evidence against him was weaker, the committee said.
The vote to oust Joines was 26-16, a damning vote, but shy of the two-thirds required by the Idaho Constitution to remove him. The vote against Perkins failed on a tie, 22-22.
Neither Joines nor Perkins returned to the Legislature.
In a previous column, I said that cases like the one in 1897 are not the norm in Idaho. I still believe that to be true.
And that makes the 2012 Senate’s session-ending ethics rule change that much more puzzling and worrisome. The Senate passed a rule that says ethics complaints are to be confidential until such time that the bipartisan ethics panel finds probable cause to move forward with a full-blown investigation of a complaint. Under the new rule, a complaint can be brought in secret, reviewed in secret and dismissed with the permanent promise of secrecy, so long as the Senate Ethics Committee lacks a majority vote finding that probable cause exists of an ethics violation.
Indeed, under the new rule, it is a violation of the Senate’s ethics rules to disclose anything about the workings of a confidential Senate ethics matter — the senator involved, the nature of the complaint or the reasoning for a dismissal.
Senate Democrats, who voted against the rule change, called it a “gag order.” They’re right about that. Now, every time the Senate Ethics Committee convenes behind closed doors to review an ethics complaint, the veil of secrecy will consume the Legislature like a big, thick, dark cloud. Should the complaint be dismissed, the building and the Capitol press corps will remain in a tizzy over the circumstances surrounding the ethics complaint, who was involved and under what reasons the complaint was dismissed. And no one will be allowed to talk about it.
The rule change came as a result of the Democrats highly-trumped up charge against Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth. They complained that Pearce violated Senate ethics rules for not disclosing, prior to a series of votes on oil and gas statutes and regulations, that Sen. Pearce holds oil and gas leases on his land. But many of the votes in question had to do with procedural issues, including the modernization of the state’s oil and gas statutes and a bill addressing how the oil and gas severance tax is collected.
There was no conflict of interest. At all. Real or imagined. So either the legislators who suggested a conflict don’t understand what a conflict is or didn’t read the legislation in question. Pearce was quickly exonerated with a unanimous vote of the Senate ethics panel.
Remember, the panel was split evenly between Republicans and Democrats.
Painful as that experience was for him, I doubt Pearce would have been better served by a secret evidentiary proceeding. Legislators should take great care not to cast about with wild accusations of ethical misconduct in an attempt to score political points. Pearce was run through an ethical wringer unnecessarily, a misdeed for which Senate Democrats deserve full blame.
But Senate Republicans doubled down with a badly designed rule: It might protect individual legislator reputations from baseless charges, but at the expense of public confidence in the entire institution.