Our View: Lawmakers adopt the honor system

Editorial from the Idaho Statesman

It isn’t every day that state Reps. Phil Hart and John Rusche agree on anything — particularly ethics in government.

But it happened Tuesday. Hart, a Hayden Republican and Ethics Committee frequent flier, voiced his support for a rewrite of House rules. So did Rusche, the Lewiston Democrat who filed an ethics complaint against Hart.

No surprise, then, that the full House voted 70-0 for the rules changes, crafted by House Speaker Lawerence Denney. But does good consensus-building yield good policy?

In this case, yes and no.

Because, ultimately, you’re going to have to take the House’s word for it. The new rules will bring a new level of secrecy to the process.

The new rules aren’t completely bad. They take one step in the right direction by creating a catch-all offense: “conduct unbecoming a member of the House.”

That umbrella language would have come in handy in a case filed against Hart late last year. Hart was accused of logging trees from endowment lands without paying the state. Since the incident occurred before Hart was elected, it didn’t neatly fit into ethics rules limited to legislative duties.

The House also tightened up the rules about who can — and can’t — file an ethics complaint, restricting the process to House members only. Based on recent events, this is also a reasonable move.

Howard Griffiths filed an ethics complaint, months after mounting an unsuccessful write-in campaign against Hart. Political activist Larry Spencer filed an ethics complaint against state Rep. Eric Anderson, a Priest Lake Republican who had filed an ethics complaint against Hart.

Dizzy yet? The upshot is that this is not the way an ethics process should function. An anything-goes process allows any unsuccessful candidate or naysayer to file a nuisance complaint.

Voters still have several good ways to air grievances. They can run for Legislature or support an opposing candidate. They can organize a recall effort. They can take their case to another lawmaker and request an ethics investigation. This new rule does not lock the public out of the process.

Unfortunately, another change does.

An ethics complaint is now considered confidential, at least at first. A committee will consider sealed complaints in a closed session. If the committee finds probable cause, the complaint becomes public record.

The justification, predictably enough, is to protect lawmakers from baseless smears. But this comes at an unacceptable price.

– Can you say “whitewash”? A closed process makes it easy — too easy — for leadership to keep a complaint hush-hush.

– Secrecy also makes it too easy for leadership to intimidate or punish a lawmaker who pursues an ethics case. (Keep in mind, Anderson lost a coveted committee vice chairmanship after filing a complaint against Hart, although Denney insists this was an oversight.)

– Conversely, secrecy allows a rogue lawmaker to try to slow down the process, or retaliate against colleagues, with a torrent of ethics complaints. If a lawmaker files an ethics complaint, shouldn’t his or her constituents know?

Secrecy invites more problems than it solves.

And it sends an unmistakable message.

On Tuesday, 70 House members agreed that their self-policing process had problems. One problem, apparently, was an abundance of transparency.

A sad message indeed.

“Our View” is the editorial position of the Idaho Statesman. It is an unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman’s editorial board.

Editorial from the Idaho Statesman

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