The House Ethics Committee has convened this morning, and so far, in the committee members’ opening remarks, has vehemently condemned the behavior of Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, R-Lewiston, who is accused of sexual assault of an intern, plus pursuing, dating or asking out a total of four women employed in the Capitol this year, including, in some cases, sexual contact. Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City, said, "I’m not persuaded by the ad nauseum repetition of whether a specific policy exists. Common sense and basic morality dictates that an elected representative should not entertain a relationship with a student intern, regardless of who initiated the relationship. We heard with similar ad nauseum repetition how the representative should have known better."
In his single term in the House, McCrostie noted, von Ehlinger had been warned multiple times about his behavior with women in the Statehouse and undergone two "respectful workplace" trainings. "And yet in that amount of time he has pursued four different women with ties not just to the Legislature but ... to the Idaho House."
"This pattern of behavior of not only ignoring counsel on appropriate workplace boundaries but also pursuing relationships including sexual relationships within the House creates an unsafe environment in the House for any women that the representative may be interested in dating,” McCrostie said, adding, “although at least women who wear wedding bands will supposedly be off limits.”
That was a reference to yesterday's testimony that von Ehlinger asked out a House staffer in part because she wasn't wearing a wedding band, though she was married. The staffer reported the incident to her supervisor.
Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, said, “There is no House rule against poisoning another person, yet his behavior has poisoned the reputation of all of us.”
Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, said, "For those who work and serve as interns in the Legislature, they have rights and expectations too. I was an intern once, well, several times, and so was my daughter. And so were your children and your family members. And they have a right to have a respectful, helpful workplace and a safe workplace for them. And a good positive experience."
Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, said, “There was indeed a predatory pattern that was established.”
Committee Chairman Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, said, “We have a responsibility to this state, we have a responsibility to this institution, to all those that came before us and ... to all those that come after us, a responsibility to uphold a good public perception of this institution, to continue confidence in government, not to undermine that confidence. … Whether we like it or not, in the public eye we are held to a higher standard. … We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard of conduct. In my opinion there was clearly conduct unbecoming by the representative in this case.”
Here is my full transcript of McCrostie’s opening comments, which Horman described as “eloquent:”
“We’re charged with determining whether Rep. von Ehlinger engaged in conduct unbecoming a representative which is detrimental to the integrity of the House as a legislative body by a standard of clear and convincing evidence. … We as a committee must find clear and convincing evidence or we must dismiss. The facts here are incontrovertible. The representative, an elected state representative, engaged in a sexual relationship with with student intern.
“The criminal court system can determine if rape occurred, but I hold no doubt that this relationship is inappropriate.”
“I’m not persuaded by the ad nauseum repetition of whether a specific policy exists. Common sense and basic morality dictates that an elected representative should not entertain a relationship with a student intern, regardless of who initiated the relationship.
“Moreover, we heard with similar ad nauseum repetition how the representative should have known better. In his short tenure in the Idaho Legislature, he was spoken to twice by Rep. Holtclaw on monitoring his conduct, and over the course of two months he attended or should have attended two legislative trainings on respectful workplace. And yet in that amount of time he has pursued four different women with ties not just to the Legislature, but actually … to the Idaho House.
“This pattern of behavior of not only ignoring counsel on appropriate workplace boundaries but also pursuing relationships including sexual relationships within the House creates an unsafe environment in the House for any women that the representative may be interested in dating – although at least women who wear wedding bands will supposedly be off limits.
“I’m also unpersuaded by the selective use of three separate polygraph tests. The representative appeared before this committee three times. … Rather than clear his name, he chose to hide behind these selective polygraph questions. Neither the committee nor the complainant’s attorney were able to select questions.” (Among the questions were things like whether von Ehlinger had supervisory authority over a House intern assigned to another lawmaker.) “... So I give the polygraph tests less weight and less credibility. … I find that any test results have little relevance in my determination of conduct unbecoming.”
“The representative’s aggressive tactics towards women are unsettling. Yesterday, he told us that he put his google number on his official business card, yet hand-wrote his actual number when he gave it to Jane Doe. We all give out our business cards freely, but the representative appears to be screening his legislative contacts from his legislative ‘swipe-rights.’ This is simply unsettling.
“I fee horrible that Jane Doe was in the situation she was in, and is now in the situation she is now in. I applaud her bravery in sharing her truth with (assistant House sergeant-at-arms) Kim Blackburn, and appreciate Ms. Blackburn’s professionalism in moving Jane’s story through the proper channels. I applaud her bravery in sharing her incident with Rep. Christensen, and I’m grateful that he offered her sound counsel to follow through with a criminal investigation. And I applaud her bravery in sharing her testimony with this committee and in particular at yesterday’s hearing. Sexual assault survivors are seldom subjected to having their testimony publicly broadcast. But she knew that her truth may enable others to not suffer as she has. Along those lines, how Jane Doe was treated by some members of yesterday’s audience is abhorrent. Those who engaged in that mistreatment yesterday should be ashamed of yourselves.
“As an aside, here’s another rule that’s not part of Idaho’s code, policy or administrative rule. Maybe it should be, but it’s not. It’s the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If there’s any other higher standard that members of the House should be held to, the Golden Rule is a good place to start.
“We owe it to Jane Doe and to future Jane Does to ensure that the Idaho House can conduct our business with integrity. Our work environment must be safe for legislators, staff, interns, pages, and lobbyists, legislative employees, legislative partners, credentialed members of the press, guests testifying before committee, and visitors to our Capitol. The incident that initiated the ethics complaint, the Ethics Committee investigation, and the ethics hearing has revealed the House to be unsafe. Our body’s integrity is damaged, and our charge as a committee is to repair that. Therefore, for the aforementioned reasons, Mr. Chairman and committee, I find that the representative has engaged in conduct unbecoming a representative, which is detrimental to the integrity of the House as a legislative body.”
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.