Legislative staffer testifies at ethics committee investigating Idaho lawmaker accused of rape

Committee will meet again Thursday morning to determine if punishment is warranted

By: - April 28, 2021 9:56 am
Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger

Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, R-Lewiston (left), and his attorney, Edward Dindinger, are seated in the Lincoln Auditorium at the Idaho Capitol before the House Ethics Committee hearing on Wednesday. (Kelcie Moseley-Morris/Idaho Capital Sun).

She told them she was terrified to testify.

From behind three black curtains erected to attempt to protect her identity, she described what led up to the alleged sexual assault that put Wednesday’s Ethics and House Policy Committee hearing at the Capitol into motion.

And when she was allowed to be dismissed from Lincoln Auditorium after questioning, her screams reverberated through the marble halls of the Idaho Statehouse as onlookers pursued her.

The 19-year-old legislative staffer, identified by the committee only as Jane Doe, was subpoenaed to publicly testify to tell her version of events of the night of March 9. 

She says she met Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, R-Lewiston, that night for dinner. They went back to his apartment. She told police he held her down and forced her to perform oral sex.

Jane Doe told the committee she said no. Von Ehlinger denies the accusations. 

The committee met for more than five hours Wednesday, hearing from and asking questions of Doe, von Ehlinger, witnesses and lawmakers to determine if von Ehlinger’s conduct is unbecoming of an Idaho House member. 

At 10 a.m. Thursday, they’ll meet again.

What happens next for the committee?

At that time, the ethics committee is expected to publicly deliberate if they will dismiss the complaint, punish von Ehlinger or expel him from the Legislature entirely. 

According to Idaho Code, if the committee determines that von Ehlinger’s conduct was unbecoming of a legislator, the members will make appropriate recommendations to the full House of Representatives. If four of the five committee members vote to expel, two-thirds of the House of Representatives would also have to vote in favor of von Ehlinger losing his seat.

During Wednesday’s hearing, discussions between Ehlinger’s attorney, Edward Dindinger, and members of the committee were combative at times, particularly between Dindinger and Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa.

Von Ehlinger was called as a witness shortly after Wednesday’s hearing began, and he was questioned by Deputy Attorney General Leslie Hayes. After several other questions, Hayes asked von Ehlinger about the night the alleged sexual assault occurred, and Dindinger objected. The attorney instructed von Ehlinger to invoke his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself because there is a Boise Police Department investigation into the incident. 

Dindinger disagreed with representatives of the committee and Myers about whether his client should respond to questions until Hayes redirected the questions to testimony von Ehlinger had given about the night in question that is already a matter of public record.

Dindinger continued to object to most lines of questioning, which upset Crane.

“The intent here is for the committee, as well as potential jurors, to have all the information in front of them so that they can make a well-informed decision,” Crane said. “And I’m concerned that there’s objections that are continuing to be raised and questions are not being answered. This is a very serious matter, and it should be taken seriously. And I believe that all questions should be answered and should be answered truthfully.”

Committee chairman Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, stressed that the hearing was not a criminal trial, but rather to determine if von Ehlinger’s conduct was unbecoming of a legislator. 

There is no official approved policy surrounding dating between legislators and staffers, a point made several times by Dindinger, but several witnesses said it is an “unwritten” rule that is widely understood as inappropriate — in part because of the power differential between the two groups.

Staffer said she was ‘terrified’ to testify

The staffer, who made a report to Boise Police Department that von Ehlinger raped her by forcing her to perform oral sex on him, was subpoenaed by the committee to testify publicly. Idaho Code includes oral sex in the definition of rape.

That police investigation is still ongoing, and von Ehlinger has not been criminally charged.

In an effort to protect her identity, the black curtains were set up in the back corner of the room. Members of the press were asked to refer to her only as Jane Doe and not attempt to capture any photo or video of her. Attorneys spoke to her through the curtains as well.

Objections were repeatedly raised during questioning by Dindinger, as he pressed Doe several times on questions of consent and the details of the night she says von Ehlinger raped her. Doe’s legal representatives, who sat with her behind the curtains, also objected frequently, saying those issues were not pertinent to the ethics complaint, which is related to conduct unbecoming of a legislator for dating staff members of the Legislature.

When asked by Hayes whether she had anything else she wanted to say to the committee, Doe said she didn’t have the words for what she wanted to say.

“How do I explain that right before I got here I was late because I was panicking, on the floor vomiting on myself in the bathroom calling my mom because I’m terrified?” Doe said. “How do I explain that to the committee and what you’ve done to me?”

Ultimately, Doe said she forgives the members of the committee because they are doing their jobs investigating the complaint, and so was she by bringing the complaint forward.

When she left the witness stand, her yells and cries echoed through the West Wing hallway. A reporter for the University of Idaho’s McClure Center tweeted that people followed and filmed the staffer on her way out of the Statehouse.

House leadership says other women have reported legislator for behavior

Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, and Majority Caucus Chairwoman Megan Blanksma, R-Hammett, said other women have come forward about von Ehlinger making advances toward them. 

Blanksma said a lobbyist asked to meet with her earlier in the session and told her von Ehlinger had followed the lobbyist to the bathroom at one point during the special legislative session in August. Blanskma testified that the lobbyist told her when she came out of the bathroom, von Ehlinger was there and said they should spend more time together, which made the lobbyist feel uncomfortable. 

The same lobbyist, whose name Blanksma did not disclose to maintain her privacy and trust with legislators, said von Ehlinger also followed her around a reception during the 2021 session, prompting a fellow legislator to recognize her discomfort and attempt to intervene. The lobbyist was also concerned he had tampered with her personal belongings.

“When she went to leave the reception, her purse wasn’t where she had left it, it appeared to be tipped over,” Blanskma said. “And because she was already uncomfortable with him, she was concerned he was in her purse and could possibly have her home address.”

Two other women who worked in the Statehouse also testified Wednesday that von Ehlinger approached them about going on dates. One said she sought advice from her supervisor about his advances because she needed to decline and let him know she was married. 

Fellow legislators defend von Ehlinger

Dindinger called several legislators as witnesses for von Ehlinger in the second half of the hearing, including Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens; Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley; Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale; and Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird. Giddings and Boyle said von Ehlinger conducted himself like a gentleman in their experience.

When Giddings gave her testimony, she detailed an altercation with Doe that occurred after Giddings posted information online that revealed Doe’s name and picture. Giddings testified that Doe confronted her at the Capitol and told Giddings she had ruined her life and was “a horrible person.” She also left Giddings a voicemail saying she would pay for her sins.

Giddings said she thinks the information she posted online could be why Doe was so upset with her. 

“I wanted both sides of the story to be accurately represented … and if Rep. von Ehlinger’s name was going to be made public, I believe that everybody should be innocent until proven guilty and that both sides of the story need to be equally represented,” Giddings said.  

Dindinger attempted to ask witnesses several times about Doe’s conduct at the Statehouse, but the line of questioning was objected to by other committee members and the opposing counsel, who said the matter before the committee was von Ehlinger’s conduct as a legislator, not Doe’s as a staffer. 

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Kelcie Moseley-Morris
Kelcie Moseley-Morris

Kelcie Moseley-Morris is an award-winning journalist who has covered many topics across Idaho since 2011. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Idaho and a master’s degree in public administration from Boise State University. Moseley-Morris started her journalism career at the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, followed by the Lewiston Tribune and the Idaho Press.