House ethics hearings: What to expect Wednesday

By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports

As Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger’s ethics hearing nears, questions remain over upcoming proceedings, and if the potential consequences would be tangible. 

Von Ehlinger, R-Lewiston, has been accused of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old legislative staffer in March, as well as making other statehouse employees uncomfortable, according to reports by the Idaho Statesman and Associated Press. Von Ehlinger has hired an attorney and maintains any sexual contact with the woman was consensual. He denies allegations made by the woman.

The Boise Police Department has confirmed there is an open investigation into the incident, but von Ehlinger has not been criminally charged.

The Ethics and House Policy Committee, chaired by Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, is set to meet Wednesday morning in response to the complaint made by the woman. 

Idaho Reports does not identify potential victims of sexual assault. 

The committee’s policies are outlined under Idaho House Rule 45, which requires a public hearing in which the accused House member is entitled to appear, present evidence, cross-examine witnesses, and be represented by counsel.

An agenda posted Tuesday morning laid out a schedule with few details: The chairman will make opening comments, and counsel for both the committee and von Enlinger will each have the chance to make opening statements and question the witnesses. But it still isn’t clear who will be among those witnesses.

A committee on ethics was first established in Idaho in 1990, and several amendments have been added over the years. The committee does have the power to issue subpoenas and discover evidence relevant to the allegations, and could issue a subpoena forcing the accuser or von Ehlinger to testify on Wednesday. Documents provided to other media outlets show the committee already has access to call transcripts and text messages between von Ehlinger and the intern.

As of Tuesday morning, Idaho Reports did not receive a response to a phone call and email sent to Dixon about the upcoming hearing. 

Testimony possible

The rules around the ethics committee testimony are different than testimony in a criminal trial. 

In a criminal case, an accused person has a 5th Amendment Right under the U.S. Constitution outlining that the accused must be afforded due process and cannot be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against themselves. 

If the committee forces von Ehlinger to testify in the committee, it is documented in a public meeting and anything he were to say will become public record. 

Under Idaho House Rule 45, “Formal rules of evidence are not applicable; however, evidence shall be weighed according to its reliability, and the accused may raise objection to any evidence. The accused may defer presentation of any defense until all of the evidence has been presented in support of the complaint. The accused shall have a full and fair opportunity to obtain and review all of the evidence in support of the complaint.”

There are also questions around whether a subpoena could be issued forcing the accuser to testify at the public hearing. 

It is legal in a criminal trial to order a sexual assault victim to testify, but there are both state and federal boundaries around what can be asked of the believed victim.

For example, under Idaho Supreme Court Rules of evidence, it is inadmissible to question an alleged sexual assault victim about his or her sexual history if it’s unrelated to the alleged crime in question. 

Under the national Violence Against Women’s Act, there are also regulations around using a victim’s sexual history against them in a sexual assault trial. 

A range of potential consequences

In the end, the ethics committee has several options on how to handle the allegations. According to House Rule 45, it could be a “dismissal of the charges, reprimand, censure or expulsion, provided that a recommendation for expulsion shall only be based upon a finding beyond reasonable doubt that misconduct involves commission of a felony or use of public office for pecuniary gain under subsection (2)(b)(iii) of this rule.” 

The committee must prepare a report setting forth its findings, recommendation and reasons for such recommendation. The House of Representatives will then vote on the recommendation.

House Republican caucus leadership issued a statement about the ethics hearing on Tuesday morning. “As we’ve said before, and will continue to say, we take these claims against one of our members very seriously,” according to the statement. “The Ethics and House Policy Committee was created to handle allegations like this. We know our members are committed to a transparent and thorough process in order make a fair determination of whether the conduct was unbecoming.”

If the committee finds that wrongdoing was committed, expulsion from the House requires a two-thirds vote from members, but a reprimand or censure requires only a majority vote.

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