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Idaho House Ethics Committee rejects move to close its hearings

The panel is recommending other rule changes for consideration by the 2022 Idaho Legislature.

BOISE, Idaho — Editor's note: This story was originally published by KTVB's news partner, the Idaho Press.

The Idaho House Ethics Committee on Tuesday rejected a move pushed by two of its members to hold all future ethics committee hearings behind closed doors, after two high-profile hearings were held in public this year.

Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, proposed that future ethics proceedings take place in “executive session,” becoming public only when the committee’s recommendation goes to the full House for a vote, in a “public hearing among a body of peers on the floor.”

“This would provide witness protection,” Young told the panel Tuesday, and would reduce the need for attorneys to be involved. “It would also eliminate this period of public conjecture that we have in our process,” she said. “It would calm a lot of that down.”

Her proposal Tuesday followed strong comments from Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, to the panel a day earlier, in which he decried the two hearings held this year as a “fiasco,” and asked, “Is transparency so paramount that we must put ourselves through a public spectacle as we did, every time those facts reach the point of we’re going to investigate further?”

The first ethics case this year involved former Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, who the committee voted unanimously to censure and suspend for the remainder of his term for his conduct toward multiple women in the Capitol, including an allegation that he raped a teenaged House intern. He resigned before the full House could vote on the committee’s recommendation. Von Ehlinger faces trial in April on two felony charges.

The second involved Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, who was censured by the House and removed from one of her committee assignments for “conduct unbecoming” a House member, after she publicized the identity of the young intern both on Facebook and in her official constituent newsletter, and then defiantly refused to cooperate with the committee when it looked into her actions. She was a political ally of von Ehlinger.

Under the current House rule, ethics complaints remain confidential until the committee finds probable cause that misconduct has occurred; then, the process becomes public.

Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, was among committee members who spoke out against the closed-hearings proposal, which he called “a wholesale change in how the current House rule operates.” He said he wouldn’t be comfortable with an ethics process in which “everything is veiled in secrecy.”proposal, which he called “a wholesale change in how the current House rule operates.” He said he wouldn’t be comfortable with an ethics process in which “everything is veiled in secrecy.”

Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, said the proposal ran counter to “the way we do business in this country.”

“I think having a secret hearing would inhibit public confidence in the process itself,” he said. “I think it would be detrimental, because people who did want to examine the process by which we came to a conclusion would not be able to do so, in the way they can if they hear the entire public proceeding.”

Young said there’s precedent for such an approach, pointing to how school boards meet in closed executive session to consider disciplinary action against students. After a closed-door committee hearing, she said, there could be “a very robust floor debate.”

Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, said, “I appreciate the desire to especially protect the innocent through a private internal process, but at a certain point the public deserves the answers as much as every member of the House deserves the answers, because that is who employs us.”

Gannon said, “Due process rights can be determined a lot better with a public hearing than with a private hearing, because people can see whether there’s been due process.”

Meeting for hours both Monday and Tuesday, the committee went through the existing House ethics rule, House Rule 45, line by line and debated various ideas for clarifications and changes.

Among the changes the panel generally agreed to explore were removing all roles for House leadership in the process, including shifting responsibility for appointing the Ethics Committee chairman from the speaker of the House to the committee members; possibly providing access for a House member accused of an ethics violation to state-paid legal defense consultation; and more clarity about rules and procedures.

Barbieri said Monday that his aim was to “de-weaponize” the House ethics rule after this year’s two cases, but other members said they thought the rule had been used appropriately.

“I think they were absolutely appropriately handled and that we were diligent in looking at that rule,” said Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, the committee chairman. “This is an effort to resolve some of those points of argument.”

The panel took no votes this week; instead, it just recommended items for legislative bill drafters to work on and present back to the committee when it meets again in January.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said the Ethics Committee wanted to discuss potential changes to the rule “while it was fresh on everyone’s minds,” but he said, “It’s not going to short-circuit the process for changing rules. We are not in session. They are advisory only.”

In order to take effect, changes to House rules must clear the House Judiciary Committee during the legislative session, and then win 2/3 support of the full House.

Crane said he thought it was worth it for the panel to take the time to exhaustively examine the rule and possible improvements, and to address “some of those critiques that were leveled against the committee.”

“As uncomfortable as it is to have those public hearings, they’re necessary,” he said.

Horman said, “There’s room for conversation here, certainly about how we can improve this process.”

But, she said, “I do think the need for transparency is paramount, because the people are who we work for.”

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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