By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports
A full auditorium witnessed a tense ethics hearing on Wednesday, as attorneys and lawmakers questioned witnesses and Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger on accusations he sexually assaulted a 19-year-old staffer.
While lawmakers on the committee stressed the seriousness of the proceedings, some members of the audience laughed when committee chairman Rep. Sage Dixon asked that the media and public not identify the staffer by name or take photos of her. According to McClure Center intern Alexandra Duggan, some von Ehlinger supporters followed the woman to her car after her testimony and took videos and photos of her.
The intern alleges the interaction was sexual assault and she did not consent; Von Ehlinger agrees he had a sexual interaction with the woman, but maintains it was consensual. His attorney, Edward Dindinger, also repeatedly argued that there is no House rule stating legislators cannot date staff members, and that any complaints about his conduct should be dismissed as someone can’t be punished for not following unwritten rules.
Attorneys and lawmakers also questioned witnesses about von Ehlinger asking another House staffer on a date at the beginning of the legislative session, as well as taking a former capitol security guard on two dates with him. Several legislators who testified, including House Majority Caucus Chair Megan Blanksma, said they did not believe it was appropriate for a legislator to date staff members.
Blanksma also recalled a complaint she received from a female lobbyist who twice felt uncomfortable around von Ehlinger. On one occasion, he allegedly followed her to the bathroom and waited for her. On another occasion she said he followed her as she was trying to get away from him, and a senator intervened, Blanksma said. The lobbyist was also concerned that he had looked in her purse and found her home address.
Blanksma said the lobbyist was concerned that a formal report would interfere with her ability to do her job.
“From what I saw, she was scared,” Blanksma said. “She asked me not to report it through officials.”
While von Ehlinger was on the stand, Dindinger instructed him not to answer questions regarding the night of the alleged assault. Dindinger argued von Ehlinger has a Fifth Amendment Right not to testify against himself.
Ultimately, von Ehlinger answered some questions, but declined to answer specifics about the evening.
The woman who accused him testified that she said she agreed to go to dinner with Ehlinger in part because there would be free food.
“I make 8 dollars an hour,” she told the committee. “He has money. I don’t. That’s all.”
Idaho Reports does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.
After dinner they went to his apartment. The woman says she said “no” to Ehlinger multiple times but he forced her to perform oral sex.
The woman involved testified behind a dark curtain in the Lincoln Auditorium to protect her identity. As she spoke, Chairman Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, hung his head.
Dindinger confronted the victim about her police report, pointing out that she initially told police she didn’t want to press charges. He proceeded to question her about issues such as whether she had retained counsel, statements she made to police, and possible use of marijuana.
The attorney representing the woman objected to multiple lines of questioning from Dindinger. Both Dixon and committee member Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, repeatedly reminded the attorneys that the purpose of the hearing was not a criminal trial, but to determine whether von Ehlinger committed ethics violations.
The Boise Police Department does have an active police investigation into the allegations made against von Ehlinger. He has not been criminally charged as of Wednesday morning.
The staff member, a journal clerk, who von Ehlinger asked on a date also testified Wednesday. The woman told her superior and the issue was resolved.
“I felt surprised and uncomfortable and unsure how I should react,” she said.
Dindinger pushed the journal clerk on the fact that she does not always wear a wedding ring, but is married.
“No, it’s a personal choice I make sometimes, just like any other piece of jewelry,” she told the committee.
Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City, objected to the line of questioning, saying the issue was whether or not the woman was a staff member, not whether or not she was married.
von Ehlinger’s defense
In the afternoon, much of the conversation shifted to the intern’s actions and her behavior, rather than the actions taken by von Ehlinger.
Dindinger called Rep. Pricilla Giddings, R-White Bird, to testify in von Ehlinger’s defense.
Giddings relayed a story she had about an interaction with the intern after Giddings posted a link on her Facebook page to a blog post that included the intern’s name and photo.
Giddings said when she was returning from lunch, the intern glared at her and shouted at her, saying things like “You call yourself a woman of integrity,” and “Why are you doing this?”
When Giddings returned to her office, she also had a voicemail from the intern, calling Giddings a horrible person. She said it stated “you are gonna pay for your sins.” Giddings reported the incident to Idaho State Police.
The intern acknowledged the interaction with Giddings in her testimony, saying when she left the voicemail, she was panicking.
Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, testified, saying she saw the woman speaking with von Ehlinger on March 2, before the alleged sexual assault. She believed the two were flirting and intentionally did not interrupt.
“I’m a woman,” she said. “I know what it looks like to flirt.”
The defense repeatedly made note that nowhere in House rules, or Idaho code, is there a ban prohibiting members of the House of Representatives from dating staff members.
When testifying, House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, also confirmed that Idaho’s House never formally adopted the Respectful Workplace Policy. The Senate has adopted it, as has the Legislative Council, but the House of Representatives has not. All new lawmakers do, however, receive respectful workplace policy training.
Von Ehlinger’s defense also presented evidence of a polygraph test he passed this month; Polygraphs are not admissible in Idaho criminal court because they are unreliable.
Ultimately, committee members decided to recess until 10 a.m. Thursday, where they will have a discussion about what recommendations to make to the full House. The committee is made up of Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, McCrostie, Crane, and Dixon.
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.
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.