2 complaints, 3 possible outcomes: What to expect from Idaho Rep. Giddings’ ethics hearing
Committee could recommend dismissal, reprimand or expulsion of representative
Idaho State Capitol building past the old Ada County Courthouse on May 5, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Mountain Sun)
Formal ethics investigations at the Idaho Legislature have historically been rare. There have been a few instances over the years, including a high-profile hearing on former Rep. Phil Hart’s tax evasion problems in 2010, but for many years there have been no formal hearings before the House Ethics and Policy Committee.
That is, until this year.
After today, the committee will have held two formal ethics investigation hearings for conduct unbecoming of a legislator in the span of a few months. Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, is the subject of today’s hearing.
Two complaints were filed against Giddings in April and May. The first complaint was filed by Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, on April 19 stating Giddings revealed the name and photo of the 19-year-old legislative staffer who accused former Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, R-Lewiston, of rape. Giddings posted a link to her Facebook page with the woman’s information.
Chaney also wrote that Giddings misled the public by writing “Follow the money!” on her Facebook post and implying misconduct on the part of the ethics committee representatives and House leadership.
The second complaint, which was filed on May 3, lists two reasons for conduct unbecoming — the first was Giddings’ actions in revealing the legislative intern’s information, and the second was misrepresenting her actions when she appeared before the ethics committee during von Ehlinger’s hearing. Giddings denied posting the information on Facebook and would not answer when asked if she was the administrator of the page, and the complaint says she can be held in contempt of the committee.
The second complaint is signed by many more legislators, including Chaney. In total, 17 Republicans and eight Democrats in the House signed their names, including Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, and Majority Caucus Chairwoman Megan Blanksma, R-Hammett.
The hearing begins at 9 a.m. today at the Idaho Capitol, and may continue on Tuesday. The hearing will be open to the public in the East Wing 42 room and live streamed by Idaho in Session, although the venue may change to the Lincoln Auditorium if the room starts to get overcrowded.
Here’s what to expect.
Three outcomes are on the table
An ethics complaint only becomes known to the public if, through the course of an investigation, there is probable cause that misconduct may have occurred. If no such probable cause is found, the matter is filed with the chief clerk of the House of Representatives and isn’t subject to public record.
In recent years, isolated incidents have occurred that didn’t rise to the level of a formal hearing. Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, was stripped of her committee assignments in 2017 after making a comment that women in the Idaho Legislature only receive leadership positions if they “spread their legs.” She has since been allowed to resume membership on committees.
In 2014, former Rep. Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton, asked for an ethics investigation into her own actions because she did not reveal a conflict of interest before voting on a bill.
When a formal hearing is called, the committee of five legislators — three Republicans and two Democrats — has three options:
- Dismiss the complaint
- Recommend reprimand or censure
- Expel the legislator from the House
Since the preliminary investigation already found probable cause of misconduct in Giddings’ case, it’s unlikely the claim will be dismissed, although it’s still an option.
To recommend action, four of the five legislators must agree. In von Ehlinger’s case in April, the committee voted unanimously to censure and suspend him from the Legislature until the end of the spring 2022 legislative session. Rather than face a full House vote on the recommendation, von Ehlinger elected to resign the same day, but maintained his innocence.
The Boise Police Department investigated the rape allegations against von Ehlinger and referred the case to the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office for a decision on charges. Emily Lowe, spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office, told the Idaho Capital Sun on July 20 that they have received the police reports and further investigation is ongoing. No charges have been filed.
The option to reprimand a legislator is open ended and can range in severity. For example, in Oregon, an ethics panel in 2017 issued a “letter of education” to a lawmaker who did not fully disclose income and stock holdings.
Censure is more serious and expresses strong disapproval or condemnation on the part of fellow legislators but stops short of expelling the member.
The hearing is not considered a court proceeding but is similarly structured. A lawyer for the committee will be present, and Giddings is entitled to representation as well. Any relevant evidence is admissible. Witnesses can be called on both sides and are subject to cross-examination. Unlike a court proceeding, any action taken by the committee and the full House is final and not subject to court review, according to the rules outlined in the House Journal.
If the committee votes to recommend action in Giddings’ case, the rest of the House members may convene to determine the outcome. At the moment, the House is recessed subject to the call of the chair, which is Bedke.
Political aspirations heighten the tension
The situation is complicated by the fact that Giddings and Bedke have announced intentions to file as candidates for lieutenant governor in the Republican primary, which will be held in May 2022. Giddings accused Bedke of playing dirty politics with the investigation, since he was a co-signer of the second complaint, but Bedke has said the timeline doesn’t match her claims.
“Her attempt to excuse Rep. von Ehlinger’s conduct through her admitted publication of his alleged victim’s information is worthy of investigation by the Ethics Committee,” Bedke said in a statement earlier in July. “This is why I signed on with 24 other House members to make that request on May 3, 2021. Rep. Giddings did not declare her intention to seek a statewide office until May 21, 2021. Rep. Giddings is now attempting to deflect and use the investigation as a fundraising tactic.”
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