The Idaho House Ethics Committee met for several hours today to discuss possible changes to House Rule 45, the House ethics rule, in the wake of two high-profile ethics cases this year; it’ll meet again at 9 a.m. Tuesday to continue the discussion.
Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, called for wholesale changes, echoing complaints from Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, that the process was unfair. The panel voted unanimously in August to censure her and remove her from one of her committee assignments for publicizing the identity and personal details of an alleged teenage rape victim; the full House backed the move when it met last month.
Barbieri said he thought the Legislature had “jettisoned” rules of evidence and due process, “in some cases 400 years of precedent to assure fairness in any kind of a trial.” But the House Ethics Committee doesn’t hold trials; it investigates and holds hearings on ethics charges, as governed by House rules.
“There’s a question of the appearance of impropriety, in terms of who is on the committee, whether or not there are political influences on committee chairs,” Barbieri said, calling for moves to “de-weaponize this rule” including closing all proceedings and having the committee itself elect its chair. “I think it’s an internal matter,” he said. “I think maybe most of the hearings should be in camera, that is to say not necessarily in public.”
Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City, said, “It’s all been above-board and it’s all been according to Rule 45.”
In both cases this year, that of Giddings and of former Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, R-Lewiston, the GOP-dominated Ethics Committee voted unanimously.
“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.”
In addition to potentially more rigorous rules of evidence, the panel discussed possible state-funded legal defense for representatives accused of ethics violations, in the interest of fairness; more clarity on what’s confidential in the ethics process; possibly increasing the required House vote to censure a member from a majority to two-thirds; and other possible changes.
Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, said, “I think the rules of evidence were followed.”
As far as Rule 45, he said, “I think it needs to be tweaked, but I think it worked pretty well, generally speaking.”
Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, said he agreed that the rule worked well. “I think that there probably are some tweaks to be made to this to make it function better for the committee,” he said.
McCrostie noted that while Giddings complained about the process, “she didn’t avail herself of aspects of the process to begin with,” including refusing to participate in it. “We have a good Rule 45 that I believe worked just fine in the last two ethics hearings,” he said. “If we can provide greater clarity for future ethics committees and future members of the House, I’m happy to go through that process.”
Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, said, “Transparency, due process and fairness are all important to an ethics process, so any changes to the rule that we can make that will improve that, I will be in support of.” However, she said, “It’s hard to do our due diligence when they refuse to participate in the process.”
“It was a fair process, in my opinion,” she said. “I feel like we followed the rule with exactness and we did give every due process under the rule when the member chose to participate, privately or publicly.”
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.