Idaho’s sexual assault victims must be protected when they come forward

House committee could choose to suspend rules, find a less public avenue to determine whether to remove von Ehlinger, writes guest columnist Tara Malek

April 26, 2021 3:20 pm
The Idaho State Capitol

The Idaho State Capitol on March 21, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

As a former federal and state prosecutor, I’m no stranger to the scourge of sexual assault on our communities. 

I’ve seen first hand the lives destroyed by rape and sexual assault and the lasting impact that it can have on not only victims but their families as well. Further, the damage caused by sexual assault does not end after the assault. 

When a suspect or the perpetrator is identified, victims then have to go through an oftentimes arduous, embarrassing and traumatic process in the criminal justice system of reliving the assault to attempt to bring their attacker to justice. 

It is because of my experience that I am compelled to publicly support the privacy rights of the teen intern who was allegedly assaulted by Idaho Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, R-Lewiston.  

The House Ethics Committee will hold a public hearing on Wednesday morning determine whether good cause exists to remove Rep. von Ehlinger from the Legislature. Unfortunately, the 19-year old alleged victim will be subpoenaed to testify at the hearing, even though she has already reported the conduct to the proper authorities. 

Not only will this young woman be forced to relive her trauma in the criminal justice system, but she is being yanked under the bright lights of the political stage as well. 

I cannot imagine the fear, embarrassment, stress, anxiety she must be going through as a result. And, I cannot imagine a more callous way to handle this situation. 

The House committee can and should choose to rely on other reports, witness statements, and if necessary, allow a representative for this young woman to stand in for her during the hearing. Alternatively, the committee could choose to suspend the rules and find a less public avenue to determine whether there is cause to remove von Ehlinger. The Idaho Constitution broadly provides that  “Each house may, for good cause shown, with the concurrence of two-thirds of all the members, expel a member.” There is no constitutional requirement that cause be found in a public hearing where the alleged victim is forced to testify.

I’m also deeply disturbed by some members of the Idaho Legislature who are facilitating further humiliation of this young woman by publicly releasing her identity and details about her personal life. Attacks on victims of sexual assault are nothing new; it is a strategic move used to force victims into silence. 

Whose voice is louder? Too often, it’s the perpetrator’s voice because he or she holds more power.

Fear, intimidation and bullying contribute to the culture of silence and fear that keep those affected by sexual assault from coming forward. With 75% of sexual assaults going unreported, it’s essential that we consider why fear and silence persist as the dominant narrative among victims. 

One in four Idaho women will be sexually assaulted, and it’s always about power. This is not a matter of politics; rather, it is a matter of justice, humanity and morality. The way we treat victims must change. 

I feel for the Idaho families who, until this, encouraged their high school students to sign up to be pages and volunteer to help the business of Idaho get done at the Statehouse.

This young woman was an unpaid intern, hoping to gain experience to help her better her life through a career in public service. She came into this program not expecting to be at the center of a political firestorm or to be exposed and victimized in this way. 

She followed all of the correct steps, bringing the assault to the ethics committee and the Boise Police Department. Yet, she was deliberately and publicly named and shamed. How could she not regret coming forward? 

The House Ethics Committee can play a role in protecting the already violated privacy rights of the victim, set an example for our state and others about the correct way to treat sexual assault victims and hold themselves to higher standards than some of their colleagues. To subpoena her to speak at the hearing, further compromises her identity and subjectsher to threats, abuse, and intimidation. 

For any victim to come forward in the face of an unforgiving system – let alone a 19-year-old with everything to lose and nothing to gain – is a conscious act of bravery, and one all decent Idahoans should support. 

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Tara Malek
Tara Malek

Tara Malek is a former Kootenai County prosecutor and assistant U.S. Attorney. She is the co-owner of Smith + Malek and lives in Coeur d’Alene and Boise with her husband, Luke Malek.