On Wednesday, members of a ethics panel voted unanimously to recommend removal of Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, from the House Revenue and Taxation Committee. Shortly after the decision was rendered, Starr Kelso, attorney for Hart, that the committee had no authority to recommend Hart’s removal.
Hart was cleared of two ethics complaints against him – one at an earlier committee meeting and one Wednesday – but members of the ethics panel felt that Hart’s ongoing legal case against the Idaho State Tax Commission could prove to be a conflict-of-interest for a member a House committee tasked with writing tax code. The commission and the Internal Revenue Service say Hart owes more than $700,000 in back taxes, fees, and interest, but he is fighting that amount. The commission recently ruled against Hart in the matter, but the Athol Republican has filed a motion to reconsider. If that motion is not approved, it is possible Hart could take his battle to district court.
Kelso, in a letter to media outlets, rejects the committee’s ruling. ”Any purported action taken by the Ethics Committee regarding Mr. Hart, such as recommending that he no longer serve on the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, has no basis in law or procedure and exceeds the Committee’s authority under Rule 76,” wrote Kelso. Brian Kane, deputy attorney general, told committee members Wednesday that a recommendation was within the committee’s scope of power.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, with the panel’s approval, offered Hart a way out of the mess. Raybould asked Hart to voluntarily resign from the tax committee. Hart rejected the offer, and countered with a proposal that he would meet with the Idaho speaker of the House and members of the tax committee to discuss the issue. Kelso says that is still in Hart’s future. ”The committee was advised that Rep. Hart would voluntarily discuss his membership on the Revenue and Taxation Committee with the Speaker of the Idaho House, and he will do so,” said Kelso.
Hart has maintained through the process that he has correctly filed his taxes in the past. Wednesday’s letter from Kelso was no exception. ”Since January 2005 Mr. Hart has paid over ONE HUNDRED TWENTY THOUSANDDOLLARS ($120,000.00) in taxes. Mr. Hart believes that when the law is applied to the facts it will be determined that he has overpaid his income taxes,” concluded Kelso.
The committee will send its recommendation in a letter to Speaker of the House Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, who has the final say in determining Hart’s fate. Denney can choose to accept the committee’s proposal or ignore it completely.