If Idahoans want to drain the political swamp, they need not travel far.
It’s right in their state capital.
That’s not us saying it.
It’s the Center for Integrity.
Last fall, the Washington, D.C. -based organization ranked the states in terms of steps they had taken to head off public corruption.
As with earlier snapshots taken by groups such as the Center for Public Integrity, two safeguards stood out:
l A panel to investigate public officials for unethical behavior. But not just any panel. The center called on ethics commissions to be independent from interference, empowered to launch investigations, obligated to operate in public, authorized to compel witnesses to disclose information and armed with the teeth to impose sanctions.
l A requirement that elected officials disclose their financial transactions so it’s never in doubt whether they are serving the public interest or their own.
No state got it entirely right.
In fact, no state got a better score than Washington’s 78 percent. The Evergreen State, for instance, operates under strictly independent ethics review boards.
Most of the Western states wound up in the middle. Oregon ranked 24th (55 percent); Nevada came in 26th (54 percent); Montana was 27th (also 54 percent), and Utah placed 45th (31 percent).
You guessed it. Third from the bottom at 16 percent.
The reason is simple.
In Idaho, there is no ethics panel with the power to compel testimony or launch investigations.
There is no ethics board free from political interference.
There is no ethics commission empowered to impose sanctions.
There is no ethics board.
Instead, members of the Idaho House and Senate police themselves. They decide whether to pursue a case — often outside the public’s view.
Likewise, there is no obligation on the part of Idaho’s elected officials — including its part-time citizen legislators — to disclose how they earn a living. At last count, that left Idaho in the company of only one other state, Michigan.
It’s not as if Idaho can rely on its squeaky-clean tradition.
Just this week, Gov. Brad Little ousted Idaho Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Chairman Kevin Dickey. The governor did not elaborate on why he acted, although the Idaho Statesman’s Cynthia Sewell noted Dickey had recently purchased stock in oil and gas company Alta Mesa Resources, which is tied to a company operating in Idaho, Alta Mesa Idaho.
Through the years, Idahoans have become inured to such things as:
l A tax scofflaw who pilfered timber from state forest land while retaining his perch on the House tax-writing committee (former Rep. Phil Hart, R-Hayden).
l The chairman of a Senate committee responsible for writing laws governing oil and gas development signing a lease with an oil and gas company (former Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth).
l A House member surreptitiously recording a conversation with Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg (former Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg).
l A pair of senior House members taking more than their fair share of money to cover their living expenses (Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, and his wife, former Rep. Janet Trujillo, R-Idaho Falls, who now sits on the State Tax Commission).
If anything, lawmakers have made it even more difficult to start an ethics probe by shutting out the public entirely. Only a fellow member can approach a legislative ethics panel and unless the allegation is substantiated, it will remain secret.
To his credit, former Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, last year tried to pry open the financial disclosure box. His bill was modest enough — it required lawmakers and their spouses to identify their primary employers, any entity that paid them more than $5,000, any entity in which they owned stocks and bonds and any board on which they served. Loertscher’s bill was modeled after the law in Utah.
Chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, Loertscher found himself rebuffed by his fellow Republicans, who killed it on the spot.
Don’t look for either idea to emerge this year. An interim committee reviewing reforms zeroed in on campaign finance. It wants candidates and committees to file details about contributions and expenditures more often during the election cycle — and it wants penalties imposed against those who miss filing deadlines.
That’s all to the good. Idaho’s Sunshine Law leaves too many reporting gaps — notably from the end of January to early May on the eve of Idaho’s primary election.
But you would think this year would be precisely the right opportunity for Idaho to drain its own swamp. After all, Little is beginning his tenure and nearly a quarter of the legislators are new to the process. They are not tied to the mistakes of the past.
What’s the alternative? Wait until a big enough scandal comes along that forces them to act?