By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports
The former legislative intern who claimed a state representative sexually assaulted her and faced an ethics hearing has taken the first step in civil litigation.
On Sept. 3, attorney Erika Birch filed a tort claim with the state on behalf of the 19-year-old woman, identified as Jane Doe.
Idaho Reports obtained a copy of the claim through the Secretary of State’s Office. Idaho Reports does not publicly identify potential victims of sexual assault.
As first reported by the Lewiston Tribune, Aaron von Ehlinger has now been charged on suspicion of rape and sexual penetration with a foreign object.
The Ada County Sheriff’s Office had von Ehlinger listed Friday as having an outstanding warrant for those two crimes and the warrant was issued Thursday. No court date has been set, as of 4:30 p.m. Friday. It was not immediately clear if von Ehlinger would be taken into custody, or if he would be served the warrant and turn himself into jail.
The tort claim comes six months after Jane Doe claimed that former Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, R-Lewiston, sexually assaulted her in Boise. Jane Doe reported the assault and Von Ehlinger was called before the House Ethics Committee for a public hearing, where Jane Doe testified in April.
Jane Doe worked as a page at the Capitol in the 2020 Legislative Session and an intern in 2021.
After hearing testimony, the committee unanimously recommended to censure and immediately suspend von Ehlinger. He resigned just a few hours after the committee vote.
Von Ehlinger was also accused of sexually harassing other women who worked in the statehouse.
Among other claims made in the tort are a violation of the Respectful Workplace Policy of the Idaho Legislative Branch.
The claim alleges “The legislature knew or should have known about a pattern of sexually inappropriate and/or gender-based behaviors perpetrated by elected officials on females working at the legislature/conducting legislative business at the legislature. The legislature, including members in leadership, knew that Von Ehlinger had engaged in inappropriate behavior with young women whom he worked with or had contact with via his work as an elected official.”
She argues the legislature acted with “reckless disregard and with deliberate indifference to the rights of women in general and Ms. Doe in particular.”
Other claims include a violation of her Constitutional right to be protected from discrimination based on one’s sex or gender.
The tort claims assault, battery or seduction was inflicted by von Ehlinger on Jane Doe on or around March 9, 2021.
She claims defamation based on false information which impugned her honesty, integrity, virtue or reputation to expose one to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule.
The claim also points to Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, who made public comments about Jane Doe and linked to a blog post that revealed personal information about her in a legislative newsletter and on her legislative Facebook page.
Giddings was later called before the House Policy and Ethics Committee for that conduct. In August, it unanimously found that Giddings behaved in a manner unbecoming of a representative, and voted to recommend she be censured by the House and removed from her post on the Commerce and Human Resources Committee. The full House has not yet voted on her censure.
Giddings is running for the lieutenant governor’s seat in 2022.
Additionally, the tort claims both von Ehlinger and his attorney, David Leroy, were told they should not identify Doe, but claims Leroy did release her information. Jane Doe claims negligent infliction of emotional distress, claiming the Ethics Committee’s handling of the complaint inflicted emotional distress.
The tort also claims that von Ehlinger, Giddings, and Doe had “negligent supervision” that caused a multitude of injuries.
One claim outlines a conspiracy to violate Jane Doe’s equal protection rights by several legislators working collectively.The claims are as follows:
It alleges that Giddings was involved in drafting the media and press statement of Aaron Von Ehlinger which claimed that he had “been falsely accused of having unconsented sexual contact with an adult volunteer member of the legislative staff.” On April 16, Von Ehlinger’s attorney, David Leroy, released an unredacted copy of his response, despite demands that he should not do so. It also alleges that Rep. Giddings communicated with members of the press, asking a reporter if he received a copy of Von Ehlinger’s response from Mr. Leroy and encouraging reporting on it.
Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, on April 16 attempted to gain access to Jane Doe’s police report to Boise Police.
Rep. Christy Zito, R-Hammett, asked someone on April 26 about which criminal code is triggered when someone makes a “false report,” suggesting that Doe could be criminally prosecuted for reporting her alleged assault by von Ehlinger.
Giddings filed a police report saying she was “accosted” by Jane Doe and/or threatened on April 20.
Giddings wrote a Facebook post asking for donations “if you want to support due process and equality under the law.”
The tort claim alleges that Idaho Code 6-2101 prohibits retaliation against an employee for reporting violations or suspected violations of the law. On March 11, the claim states, “Doe reported Von Ehlinger’s criminal and tortious conduct inflicted upon her which led to an ethics complaint against Von Ehlinger. She participated in good faith in the Committee’s investigation and in the public hearing. As a result of her report and participation, she experienced adverse actions including the release of her name and other identifying information, defamatory statements, invasion of her privacy, infliction of emotional distress, etc.”
The tort claim ultimately outlines that after experiencing what she described as “a traumatizing sexual assault” she reported the same to legislative personnel as she believed “she was required to do and in order to prevent Von Ehlinger from victimizing anyone else.”
“Ms. Doe suffered and continues to suffer extreme emotional distress including suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. She has experienced a multitude of physical symptoms as a result of the emotional trauma, including but not limited to: anxiety, inability to sleep; loss of appetite, the inability to keep food ingested down/regular vomiting, headaches, and inability to focus. She has experienced fear for her physical safety and the safety of her family. She has suffered injury to her good name and reputation, to her privacy and to her sense of security.”
She was unable to continue working and unable to finish her college courses, therefore she did not receive credit for those courses.
Should the litigation go forward to trial, it will be up to a jury to decide what she should be awarded. Jane Doe’s attorneys ask for damages exceeding the $500,000 cap per occurrence for claims.
In the criminal case, von Ehlinger has not yet appeared before the court and awaits trial. If convicted, the rape charge could be punishable by up to life in prison.
Idaho Reports attempted to reach House Ethics Committee Chair Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, for comment. Dixon did not answer and his voicemail box was full. Idaho Reports also attempted to reach Dixon by e-mail.
Majority Caucus Chair Rep. Megan Blanksma, R-Hammett, told Idaho Reports she anticipated having a statement by afternoon. House Speaker Scott Bedke was unavailable at the time of Idaho Reports’ call, but this post will be updated later with his response.
Former workplace harassment cases in Idaho
In 2019, a federal jury determined an Idaho woman who experienced a hostile work environment after reporting she had been sexually assaulted by a co-worker should receive $1.8 million in damages.
That was the case of Cynthia Fuller vs the Idaho Department of Correction. Cynthia Fuller, a former Idaho probation and parole employee, accused Idaho Department of Correction administrators of creating a hostile work environment and causing emotional distress after she reported a co-worker, with whom she had been in a relationship, raped her.
“Fuller claimed she was raped by co-worker Herbt Cruz three times over a two-week period in 2011. Her lawsuit focuses on how her supervisors at the Caldwell probation and parole office and IDOC’s top administrators handled her claims and other complaints by female employees about Cruz,” according to reporting from the Idaho Statesman.
Erika Birch was also Fuller’s legal counsel.
In 2017, an employee of the Idaho Controller’s Office, Lourdes Matsumoto, sued the state over a workplace harassment issue, according to the Associated Press. She claimed women were being given lower raises and fewer promotions. Former Chief of Staff Dan Goicoechea, allegedly routinely boasted about his sexual escapades with current or previous subordinate women. She claimed Goicoechea made discriminatory comments about people’s ethnicities. The case settled with the controller’s office agreeing to give Matsumoto an $83,000 cash payment and not rehire Goicoechea for the next five years. He is free to work at any other state agency, though.
Both Fuller and Matsumoto have previously been identified in media reports.
The National Sexual Assault Hotline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-656-4673, or online at www.rainn.org. The service is free and confidential.
The copy of this tort claim was obtained by Idaho Reports from the Idaho Secretary of State.