House changes ethics complaint rule after last year’s hearings

Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, chairs the Aug. 2 House Ethics Committee hearing regarding Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird.

By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports 

After two contentious public ethics hearings in 2021, the House has passed changes to the rule governing ethics complaints made against members of the body.

House Rule 45 is the rule that handles ethics complaints made against a member of the body. The committee held two public hearings last year, the first against former Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger and the second against Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird. 

Ethics and House Policy Committee Chairman Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, introduced the bill in the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday. The House approved it Friday in a 60-9 vote.

Dixon told the committee that while the bill was coming near the end of session, nearly 30 hours of work had gone into the draft.

“In light of what we experienced last year as a body, we’re trying to make some improvements to it,” Dixon said in committee. “…What’s important to us at this point is that we get it out to the body in hopes of addressing that this year before we Sine Die. This isn’t a rushed effort. I want to make that very clear.”

Issues came to light in last year’s hearings that the House previously hadn’t seen, such as the accused person’s right to counsel, a potential victim’s rights and the appropriate way to serve a member with a complaint. 

Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, took issue with the possible expulsion rules in the new rule.

“Ethics committees across the country have been weaponized and used to take out political opponents,” Scott said. “I just don’t want to see that happen here.” 

No votes came from Reps. Chad Christensen, Greg Ferch, Giddings, Karey Hanks, Dorothy Moon, Ron Nate, Tammy Nichols, Scott and Tony Wisniewski. 

Proposed changes

Among other changes is language around what it would take to dismiss a complaint made about a member to the ethics committee.

Under the amended rule, it would require a four-fifths vote to dismiss a complaint. If the complaint is dismissed, the committee will keep a confidential record, maintained in a locked box by the chief clerk of the House.

There is also new language related to witnesses, outlining that the committee may take appropriate measures to protect the identity and privacy of third-party witnesses who testify at public hearings.

The draft also includes a new section stating the ethics committee may vote to provide the respondent with financial assistance to employ an attorney to represent them if they choose. There are no limitations around the cost of legal fees a member may have reimbursed.

The changes also clarify that the ethics committee’s recommendation must be approved with a four-fifths vote, unless the recommendation is expulsion, which must have a unanimous vote from the committee. 

Other changes include language clarifying what the committee should do in the case of a vacancy on the committee and how the two parties select members for the committee. 

Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, took issue with the language around what qualifies as a possible reason for expulsion of a member. The prior rule used to say a felony or the use of public office for financial gain were possible reasons for expulsion. That language was removed, putting no parameters around the reason for expulsion.

“Expelling a member has the weighty impact of overturning an election,” Nate said. 

Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City and a member of the ethics committee, said the constitution does not specify the reason needed for expulsion, so the new rule is attempting to comply with the constitution.  

Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, also sits on the ethics committee. He stressed that ethics hearings are not trials, they are disciplinary hearings and a way for the body to hold each other accountable. 

2021 public hearings

Von Ehlinger resigned in April after the committee voted unanimously to recommend his censure and immediate suspension after he was accused of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old intern. Von Ehlinger awaits trial on two felony charges, include rape and forcible penetration with a foreign object. His next court date is set for April 11 in Ada County.

In his public hearing, von Ehlinger declined to answer several of the committee’s questions because he was subject to an ongoing criminal investigation.

He also hired his own counsel to be at the hearings with him. 

The committee voted to censure Giddings in August after she was accused of publicly identifying the intern involved and behaving in “a manner unbecoming of a representative.” The committee also removed her from her seat on the Commerce and Human Resources Committee. In Giddings’ case, she refused to participate in the initial hearings that the committee holds in executive session, forcing the committee to hold a public hearing. 

Giddings didn’t attend parts of the public hearing, and committee members accused her of being combative or lying. 

<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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