Ethics committee weighs changes to hearing policy, transparency

Ethics Committee Chairman Sage Dixon, Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, and Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, discussed transparency at the statehouse on Dec. 6, 2021, in a public meeting for the Committee on Ethics and House Policy.

By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports

The Committee on Ethics and House Policy met this week to review the House rule which led to the public hearings of two legislators accused of conduct unbecoming of a legislator. 

In 2021, the committee received complaints about former Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger and Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-Whitebird. Both were the subject of public hearings.

Von Ehlinger is accused of sexually assaulting a legislative intern and harassing other women in the capitol. He resigned after the committee voted to recommend he be suspended immediately. 

Giddings faced a public hearing after a complaint was filed alleging she publicly identified the suspected victim of von Ehlinger on social media and through her newsletter. Giddings shared a link to a conservative blog post that named the woman and included a picture of her as well as personal information. The House voted 49-19 to censure Giddings last month and remove her from one of her committee assignments, following the ethics committee’s recommendations

A censure is a formal expression of disapproval. 

On Monday and Tuesday, the committee met at the statehouse to discuss possible changes to House Rule 45. Any recommendation made by the committee would need to go before the Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee and then the full House. A change to House rules requires a two-thirds vote of support. 

Much of the discussion this week revolved around the committee members’ frustrations or issues that came up during the two public hearings this year. 

The discussion covered the issue of transparency, and whether details of a complaint filed about a legislator should be made public

Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City, said one of the criticisms they heard from legislators this year was that the committee “made it up as they went along,” in reference to rules around the hearing.

Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, said “We created rules in the interest of providing due process to everyone.”

The committee addressed issues around witness testimony, the Fifth Amendment, due process, legal representation and privacy.

The committee spent more than four hours Monday and about six hours on Tuesday discussing ways to improve House Rule 45.

Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, serves as an ad hoc member on the Ethics Committee. He was not a voting member in the Giddings and von Ehlinger hearings. 

Barbieri said Monday he wanted to “deweaponize” the rule. 

“I think it’s an internal matter,” Barbieri said. “I think most of the hearings should be … not necessarily in public. But certainly a report should be made public.”  

At one point, Barbieri questioned whether transparency was the ultimate goal of the ethics committee. 

Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, asked Barbieri if they made the decisions behind closed doors,  would the committee have received more criticism. Crane said he was eager to improve the process.

Barbieri said, hypothetically, a report would still be released and the House would know the evidence before a vote.

“The amount of suspicion, conjecture, wild conspiracy theories … they are just that,” said Crane, stressing support for public hearings. “And at least if it was transparent I can say ‘There it is.’”

He said if the hearings were held in private, the allegations about the committee would have been worse. 

“If it’s hidden behind the cloak of secrecy I think that that’s dangerous,” Crane said. “Especially when it involves the potential for discipline.”

On Tuesday, Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, made a similar suggestion to Barbieri’s. Young is also an ad hoc member and was not a voting member in the Giddings and von Ehlinger hearings. 

Young suggested that all evidence should be reviewed in private and all meetings regarding an ethics complaint should be closed to the public. She suggested this would provide witness protection and less money would be spent on attorneys.

It would make it clear that the evidence gathered in executive session would be released later in a report, she said.

“I think it would also moderate some of the Fifth Amendment concerns, because what would then be available to a court would be the report at most, and not what was said before the ethics committee,” Young said.

She said the report would then go directly to the House floor to be reviewed and voted on by the House.

The Fifth Amendment was a common topic of discussion, as the complaint against von Ehlinger in the committee later was followed by a criminal charge. 

Von Ehlinger resigned, but is still facing charges on accusations of rape and forcible penetration with a foreign object connected to the suspected sexual assault while he was a legislator. He pleaded not guilty and awaits trial in April. 

Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, said he was not comfortable supporting Young’s suggestion Tuesday and thought it should be drafted as a separate piece of legislation. He said it appeared “everything was veiled in secrecy and privacy.”

Several members of the committee also rejected the idea.

“Hearings are public. Trials are public. That’s the way we do business in this country,” Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise said. “Having secret hearings would inhibit public confidence in the process itself.”

Young offered the example of school boards, which go into executive session when considering the expulsion of a student.

Horman disputed the comment, saying she previously served on a school board. 

“We are talking about a minor student in that situation, even when you’re talking about disciplinary action against a teacher as a private citizen, but we are employed by the people of Idaho,” Horman said. 

Horman also believed the policy pitched by Young could be a violation of public record laws.

“I appreciate the desire to especially protect the innocent through a private internal process, but at a certain point the public deserves the answers as much as every member of the House deserves the answers,” Horman said.

The committee will meet again in January and draft recommendations that will be sent to the Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee.

<strong>Ruth Brown</strong> | Producer
Ruth Brown | Producer

Ruth Brown grew up in South Dakota and her first job out of college was covering the South Dakota Legislature. She’s since moved on to Idaho lawmakers. Brown spent 10 years working in print journalism, including newspapers such as the Idaho Statesman and Idaho Press, where she’s covered everything from the correctional system to health care issues. She joined Idaho Reports in 2021 and looks forward to telling stories about how state policy can impact the lives of regular Idahoans.

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