As the ethics commission adjourned Tuesday, the fate of Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, really rested on his oil and gas lease with Snake River Oil looking the same as others issued in his county.
On Wednesday, Pearce, under fire from Democrats for not disclosing a possible conflict of interest on oil and gas legislation until just prior to voting for it in the Senate, was found to have identical leases to his county neighbors, a fact that cleared him of the charges.
Last week, Democrats lobbed allegations that Pearce should have disclosed the possible conflict while oil and gas legislation received hearings in the committee he chairs.
After three days of hearings, though, it all came down to the terms of Pearce’s lease. Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane spent Tuesday pouring over similar Payette County leases and found little variation in the documents.
“You kind of get the idea that they are all the same,” Kane told the ethics panel, noting that each lease pays about $10 per acre. “That is consistent across every lease, across every company.”
Still, Democratic leadership was unconvinced that Pearce hadn’t committed a misstep. Senate Assistant Majority Leader Les Bock, D-Boise, argued that further investigation into the issue could find Peace had received special benefits from his lease agreement.
But Republicans argued that any financial benefit for Pearce won’t be known for a while. Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene, told the panel that Pearce’s lease only gives oil and gas companies first rights on land, but doesn’t guarantee special benefits. “Until drilling occurs, you won’t know the value of that,” Hammond said. “You won’t know until they actually do it.”
Hammond motioned to dismiss the complaint, a move seconded by Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow. The panel voted unanimously to drop the charge, but that didn’t appease everyone.
Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, said that while Peace may have satisfied a technical and “very narrow reading” of Senate rules, he believes the senator could have done more. “There’s also the spirit of the law,” Werk said. “I have to question as to if the spirit of the law was followed.”
The effects of Pearce’s situation could lead to a slight change in Senate rules to prevent further disclosure requirements. Senate Rule 39 declares that senators, having a possible conflict, “such conflict must be disclosed to the presiding officer in writing or to the body.”
Democrats questioned whether, as a committee chair, Pearce represented as a “presiding officer” and if his panel represented a “body,” as defined in the Senate rule. Pearce, through his attorney, said he probably should have disclosed the conflict during committee hearings, but said we would support a tweak of the rule to provide more clarity.