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Idaho view: There are rules - then there's Mike Moyle

This appeared in the Lewiston Tribune:

The No. 2 man in the Idaho House and his wife stand accused of fleecing the Idaho taxpayer.

This is no mere blemish on the reputations of House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, and Rep. Janet Trujillo, R-Idaho Falls. How it’s resolved will reveal the integrity of the people running your Legislature.

As the Idaho Falls Post Register’s Bryan Clark reported Tuesday, Trujillo accepted the per diem payment of $129 a day intended to cover the costs of setting up a second home in Boise for the 80-day session.

As far as anyone can tell, Trujillo didn’t have a second home. She married Moyle in December and the couple apparently resided at his Star ranch, about 20 miles from the capital city. The three-term Idaho Falls Republican refused to tell Clark where she lived during the session, but she posted on Facebook that the view from the Moyle’s residence was “my little piece of heaven.”

If Trujillo was domiciled at the marital home, she was entitled to only $49 per day to cover expenses. Given that Idaho is a community property state, it means this pair of “public servants” pocketed the difference—a cool $6,400.

Peculiar how conservative Republicans act with your tax money when it’s flowing in their direction, isn’t it? Back in 2011, the same issue tripped up two former Canyon County lawmakers. The Associated Press reported that Sens. John McGee, R-Caldwell, and Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, were taking the full per diem payment despite the fact they weren’t incurring housing costs in Boise. McGee was staying with his parents; McKenzie was sprawling out on the couch of his Boise law office.

But McGee and McKenzie seemed to be just inside a rather lenient line because they technically were sleeping in second homes in Ada County.

If Trujillo can make the same claim, let’s hear it.

As Tribune readers know, former state Rep. Susan Fagan, R-Pullman, was forced out of office after a Washington Legislative Ethics Board concluded she padded her travel account by $1,754 during a nine-month period.

But Washington takes a dimmer view of unethical behavior. The state has an independent ethics board that can either act on its own or accept complaints from anybody. In Fagan’s case, the complaining party was the clerk of the House.

The Moyle-Trujillo case would seem to qualify for an ethics review under Idaho House rules that condemn “conduct unbecoming a representative, which is detrimental to the integrity of the House as a legislative body,” or a violation that “brings discredit to the House of Representatives or that constitutes a breach of public trust.”

In Idaho, however, the politicians police themselves. The five-member House Ethics Committee can’t act unless a fellow lawmaker brings a charge.

You’d hope someone would file a complaint. Otherwise, the House ethics rules are mere words on paper. But let’s be frank. That’s just what they are.

As a practical matter, can you imagine the Republican House member who is willing to gamble with reprisals from his majority leader? Or how about one of the 11 House Democrats? Why would any one of them want to risk being further marginalized by the Republican majority?

There is, however, another precedent. Last summer, a right-wing blogger from southeast Idaho exposed a romantic affair between Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-Inkom, and Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa. Insinuated throughout was an accusation that they had bilked the taxpayers in the process.

In response, the presiding officers in each chamber—Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, and House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley—summoned legislative auditors to pore over travel records. In an official report issued on Aug. 26, Perry emerged vindicated; Guthrie had one questionable travel voucher.

By seeking the same type of inquiry about these legislative self-dealings, Bedke could either exonerate Moyle and Trujillo or establish the foundation for a full ethics review.

For that matter, Moyle and Trujillo could voluntarily submit their actions to the scrutiny of the ethics panel. No less than former House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, R-Burley, took that step in 2003 and was exonerated.

It’s not as if Moyle doesn’t get it. After all, the 10-term House leader had this to say about the way McGee and McKenzie manipulated their per diem payouts:

“I don’t think it smells good; I don’t think it looks good; and if it were one of my members, I would highly advise against it.”

Other view: What must come next in Syria

American missile strikes against Syria are a critical first step toward protecting civilians from the threat of chemical weapons, and President Donald Trump deserves credit for doing what the Obama administration refused to do. But Thursday’s action needs to be just the opening salvo in a broader campaign not only to protect the Syrian people from the brutality of the Bashar al-Assad regime but also to reverse the downward spiral of U.S. power and influence in the Middle East and throughout the world. A single missile strike unfortunately cannot undo the damage done by the Obama administration’s policies over the past six years.

Trump was not wrong to blame the dire situation in Syria on President Barack Obama. The world would be a different place today if Obama had carried out his threat to attack Syria when Assad crossed the famous “red line” in the summer of 2013. The bad agreement that then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry struck with Russia not only failed to get rid of Syria’s stock of chemical weapons and allowed the Assad regime to drop barrel bombs and employ widespread torture against civilian men, women and children. It also invited a full-scale Russian intervention in the fall of 2015, which saved the Assad regime from possible collapse.

Today, thousands of Russian forces operate throughout Syria, and not chiefly against the Islamic State but against the civilian population and the U.S.-backed moderate opposition. Russia has also greatly expanded its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean. The extensive air-defense and anti-ship systems Russia has deployed have nothing to do with counterterrorism—because neither the Islamic State nor al-Qaeda has planes or ships—and everything to do with threatening U.S. and NATO assets. Obama and Kerry spent four years panting after this partnership, but Russia has been a partner the way the mafia is when it presses in on your sporting goods business. Thanks to Obama’s policies, Russia has increasingly supplanted the United States as a major power broker in the region. Even U.S. allies such as Turkey, Egypt and Israel look increasingly to Moscow as a significant regional player.

Obama’s policies also made possible an unprecedented expansion of Iran’s power and influence. Iran has at least 7,000 of its own fighters in Syria, and it leads a coalition of 20,000 foreign fighters, including Iraqis, Afghans and 8,000 Lebanese Hezbollah.

If you add the devastating impact of massive Syrian refugee flows on European democracies, Obama’s policies have not only allowed the deaths of almost a half-million Syrians but also have significantly weakened America’s global position and the health and coherence of the West. Future historians will have to determine whether Vladimir Putin was emboldened to move in Ukraine by Obama’s failure to carry through on his threat in Syria, or whether China felt free to act more aggressively in the South China Sea. But at the very least U.S. friends and allies in the Middle East and in Eastern and Central Europe have questioned how serious the United States is about countering aggression. Even in East Asia, American allies such as Japan and South Korea were left wondering whether the United States could still be counted on to keep its military commitments.

Trump, of course, greatly exacerbated these problems during his campaign, with all the strong rhetoric aimed at allies. Now he has taken an important first step in repairing the damage, but this will not be the end of the story. America’s adversaries are not going to be convinced by one missile strike that the United States is back in the business of projecting power to defend its interests and the world order. The Russians, by suspending an agreement with the United States to coordinate air operations over Syria, are already implicitly threatening to escalate in Syria. The Iranians are likely to step up their activities and could strike at Americans in Syria and Iraq. The testing of Trump’s resolve actually begins now. If the United States backs down in the face of these challenges, the missile strike, though a worthy action in itself, may end up reinforcing the world’s impression that the United States does not have the stomach for confrontation.

Instead of being a one-time event, the missile strike needs to be the opening move in a comprehensive political, diplomatic and military strategy to rebalance the situation in Syria in America’s favor. That means reviving some of those proposals that Obama rejected over the past four years: a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians, the grounding of the Syrian air force, and the effective arming and training of the moderate opposition, all aimed at an eventual political settlement that can bring the Syrian civil war, and therefore the Assad regime, to an end. The United States’ commitment to such a course will have to be clear enough to deter the Russians from attempting to disrupt it. This in turn will require moving sufficient military assets to the region so that neither Russia nor Iran will be tempted to escalate the conflict to a crisis, and to be sure that American forces will be ready if they do.

It was precisely because Obama and his White House advisers were unwilling to go down that path that they resisted military action of any kind, regardless of the provocation. Let’s hope that the Trump administration is prepared for the next move. If it is, then there is a real chance of reversing the course of global retreat that Obama began. A strong U.S. response in Syria would make it clear to the likes of Putin, Xi Jinping, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Kim Jong Un that the days of American passivity are over.

Stapilus: Second-place heat

Surely, candidates for lieutenant governor of Idaho have never, ever, materialized this early.

Rarely have there been so many of them. And there could be more. Probably will be.

And there are larger, structural, even physics reasons.

The last time the office was seriously competitive was in 2002, not long after state Sen. Jack Riggs had been appointed to it (upon the departure of a predecessor named C.L. “Butch” Otter, who had gone off to the U.S. House). There were competitive primaries in both parties, but the Republican was notably crowded, including not only the incumbent but Celia Gould and Jim Risch, and former gubernatorial candidate Larry Eastland, plus two other little-knowns. The contest was unpredictable enough that the winner, Risch (getting his effective start here toward the Senate), won with just 34.6 percent of the vote.

Before that, although you could point to several reasonably competitive general elections back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, you have to go back generations to find the last really competitive primary for the job, or a really large field of contestants.

But so far this year—with the filing deadline close to a year away—we’ve seen entries (apparently at least) into the race from state Sen. Marv Hagedorn of Meridian and state Rep. Kelley Packer of McCammon and former legislator Janice McGeachin of Idaho Falls. State Republican Party chair Steve Yates may also be in.

Why all the heavy interest?

The big reason is that “light guv” is an open seat this time, since incumbent Brad Little is running for governor (in another multi-contender battle). Incumbents are notoriously hard to take out—few have in recent decades in Idaho—open positions offer the best path upward.

And there’s another reason for the interest: Ambitions (and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense) get bottled up in places like Idaho, where one party dominates the offices and the office-holders decide to stay around for long periods of time. In Congress, Sen. Mike Crapo has been there since 1998, Sen. Risch since 2008, Rep. Mike Simpson since 1998 and youngster Raul Labrador since 2010. Gov. Otter is wrapping up 12 years in the job; by the time of the 2018 election, Little will have been at his post for just under a decade.

If you’re looking to move up, where do you go? Mostly, you wait for the rare opportunity of an opening.

Then too, the track record for upward mobility among lieutenants governor has been improving. Until the last couple of decades, most LGs topped out in that office (the main exception being John Evans, who succeeded to the governorship; Phil Batt went on to election as governor but only years after departing as lieutenant.) More recently the picture has changed. Incumbent Little is now a strong contender for governor. His predecessor, Risch, wound up in both the governor’s office and the Senate. The last LG before him, Otter, wound up in the U.S. House and the governorship.

Looking ahead to the contest, columnist Chuck Malloy was inclined to suggest, “With Yates in, it’s game over. He wins.” Personally, I wouldn’t throw any betting money down just yet. Multi-candidate races can get awfully unpredictable, especially over the course of long campaigns. And the high pressure surrounding those few open seats can add to the number of open questions.

Never underestimate the power of bottled energy when just enough heat is applied.