There’s no deep history of corruption here, no dingy statehouse corridors or smoke-filled hearing rooms. Idaho’s early government was progressive, and its reputation has remained generally clean, as reflected in the picturesque visage of Shafer Butte that towers over the state capitol in Boise.
There are brightly colored threads of accountability and transparency that run throughout all three branches of Idaho’s state government. Experts here say many, though, are due to the tireless efforts of certain long-serving individuals — and without more institutional controls, could be lost when they leave office.
Indeed, Idaho’s lack of financial disclosure and “revolving-door” laws leaves its state government vulnerable. Even though most public officials here may be honest, hard-working and dedicated to doing the right thing, without disclosure requirements, there’s no way to know for sure.
And so Idaho, a state of almost 1.6 million residents, does not tally lofty scores in the State Integrity Investigation conducted by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. In fact, Idaho ranks 41st among the 50 states for accountability, with a numerical grade of 61and a letter grade just short of failing: D-.
In 2005, Idaho state Sen. Jack Noble, R-Kuna, proposed legislation to allow certain stores to sell liquor even if they’re close to a school; Noble didn’t mention that the bill was designed to help his own convenience store, Jacksmart in Melba, which was directly across the street from an elementary school.
Suspicious senators rejected the bill; Dan Popkey of the Idaho Statesman subsequently disclosed what was behind the bill — even pacing off the distance from Noble’s store to the school. A Senate Ethics Committee convened, to which Noble lied; then, on the eve of what would have been a historic vote to eject him from the Senate, he resigned.
Lawmakers like to say the Noble case showed that the system worked. But with no requirements for legislators — or any other state elected or appointed officials — to regularly disclose financial assets, conflicts like this could regularly go undetected. Lawmakers are required to disclose conflicts of interest with legislation before voting; there was a rash of disclosure declarations after the Noble case, and there’s been another flurry in the wake of several other ethics probes in the House in the past two years.
Former longtime House Speaker Bruce Newcomb says he doesn’t think financial disclosure would really make a difference in Idaho’s part-time, citizen legislature; reports wouldn’t show much, he said, “unless somebody blows the whistle.”
The Idaho House has convened its ethics committee several times in the past two years to review the actions of Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, a tax protester who was fighting orders to pay back state and federal income taxes at the same time he served on the House Revenue & Taxation Committee, considering and voting on tax legislation. Hart lost the committee post, and also gave up the vice-chairmanship of another committee to avoid an ethics sanction.
Idaho also lacks any “revolving door” statutes preventing lawmakers or other state officials from taking their government experience directly into a private-sector job, another factor that influenced that state’s poor grade. Idaho lawmakers routinely go directly into lobbying when they leave public service.
Former lawmaker Jim Hansen, who also headed the watchdog group United Vision for Idaho, said the state’s lack of such laws is “unconscionable.” Legislators have “been given the public trust of learning how decisions are made, and now they’re going to market it to a private interest. That’s terrible.”
Hansen also bemoaned Idaho’s lack of financial disclosure measures. “You’re going to be entrusted with the public’s assets — that’s why the public has a right to know where your interests are,” he said.
Both types of laws have been repeatedly proposed and debated in the Idaho Legislature, but have never passed both houses. In 2009, a disclosure law passed the 35-member Senate unanimously, but House Speaker Lawerence Denney declined to assign it to a House committee, single-handedly killing it. Idaho is one of only three states that lack such laws.
Denney has also been key to blocking revolving-door legislation here. In 2007, he pledged to back such legislation after a scandal involving his relationship with a California developer. Denney advised the developer to fire its lobbyist — with whom Denney had quarreled — and hire a former member of the House leadership instead. Denney later changed his mind about the legislation; nothing passed.
In 2011, Idaho’s lobbying corps included at least a dozen former state legislators, lobbying for interests ranging from health care providers to bail agents to the teachers’ union.
Idaho’s Legislature does have a strong culture of transparency when it comes to its actual processes and deliberations, from the crafting of the state budget to the live-streaming by Idaho Public Television of all House and Senate sessions and committee hearings online. Some of this stems from its long-serving nonpartisan staff, headed by Legislative Services Director Jeff Youtz – who has worked for the Idaho Legislature for 34 years.
“I think we have one of the most accessible legislative processes in the country,” said Youtz.
Idaho is currently in the midst of a messy redistricting process to draw new legislative and congressional district lines, but every twist and turn of the process has been open to public view. Hearings are streamed live online, and citizens can view all district plans – or even submit their own – through specially designed software.
Inside the judiciary
Though Idaho has no financial disclosure or revolving-door requirements for its judges either, the state’s judiciary branch generally gets high marks for accountability, in part because of its enforcement of the Idaho Code of Judicial Conduct, which includes canons of ethics for judges.
“The branch of government that gets it, mostly because they have the culture within the legal profession that this has got to happen, is the judicial branch,” said former lawmaker Hansen, an attorney. He recalled a recent incident at his Rotary Club in which a member who’s a judge was asked to donate a weekend at his mountain cabin for a fundraising auction. The judge declined, saying he couldn’t — because it might cause someone to think they were influencing the court. “So they’re thinking about it all the time,” Hansen said.
Jim Carlson, executive director of the Idaho Judicial Council, the state’s judicial oversight board, said the code’s conflict-of-interest requirements are strictly enforced. Among the requirements: Judges’ campaign contributions must go into a blind trust and the judge or candidate is forbidden from knowing who gave or in what amounts.
The Judicial Council handles both screening of nominees for vacancies in judgeships, and judicial discipline cases. The selection process is remarkably open; the judicial discipline process, by contrast, is entirely secret until it reaches the point that the council finds cause to issue a formal disciplinary sanction. Formal sanctions are rare.
The council did initiate an investigation and recommend sanctions against a sitting judge in North Idaho in 2009 over questions about whether he was properly residing in his district, a move that some charged was politically motivated. That judge, John Bradbury, had twice challenged an Idaho Supreme Court justice in elections, both times unsuccessfully.
The Idaho Supreme Court often reviews laws passed by the Legislature, and not infrequently overturns them as unconstitutional. The court received some criticism, however, for its handling of a high-profile school facilities funding lawsuit. That case stretched for nearly two decades and resulted in the Supreme Court declaring Idaho’s school funding system unconstitutional and ordering the Legislature to change it, but then closing the case without further action. Angry plaintiffs, who contended lawmakers actually made the funding deficiencies worse, sued the justices in federal court but got nowhere.
The executive branch
In January of 2011, the chairman of the state Tax Commission resigned amid allegations that he intervened on behalf of his son’s accounting firm and attempted to use his position to help a friend embroiled in a dispute with a former business partner.
The official was investigated at length by the local sheriff and the county prosecutor. The prosecutor did find evidence of wrongdoing on one of the counts, but found that the statute of limitations had expired so he was not able to press charges; those findings came six months after the official, Royce Chigbrow, resigned in disgrace.
Chigbrow was appointed to the position by Idaho Gov. Butch Otter after many years of serving as Otter’s campaign treasurer.
Idaho law bans nepotism, but not cronyism or patronage; both are common in executive-branch hiring.
“Of course it happens,” said Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey. “You can see lots of people who worked in campaigns who are rewarded with state jobs. … These are people who have shown their loyalty to the governor and worked in a climate where he can measure their effectiveness. He knows these people.”
Examples include Gov. Otter’s longtime best friend, Mike Gwartney, a former human resources executive whom he picked to head his Department of Administration, working without salary; his campaign manager, Debbie Field, a former House judiciary chairwoman who headed his Office of Drug Policy; and Josh Tewalt, a former Future Farmers of America leader with a history of DUI offenses, who impressed the governor and was hired as a top administrator for the Department of Corrections.
Classified state employees are those hired through the state’s merit-based personnel system, rather than political appointees who serve at-will. But just 51.7 percent of state jobs are classified, a number that’s been falling over the years; it was 54.4 percent in 1996.
Donna Yule, executive director of the Idaho Public Employees Association, said that since the state personnel commission was moved under the governor’s office in 1996, losing its independence, accountability has deteriorated. Now, she says, it’s mostly only the larger state agencies that consistently adhere to civil service rules. “We have people complaining about political things, like they’re getting passed over for a promotion because they sent a complaint to their legislator,” she said.
Idaho’s procurement practices generally are well thought of, and there are few cases that hit the news. “That’s the trouble— it’s anyone’s guess,” said Hansen. “Because you don’t have a clean disclosure process, what do we have to go on? Just gossip, ’til it reaches the point of a lawsuit.” In particular, Hansen said if Idaho required public officials to disclose financial interests – the area in which Idaho scored the worst – citizens would know better if something is awry.
One notable lawsuit alleged procurement problems in a multimillion-dollar bid for the Idaho Education Network telecommunication project; an unsuccessful bidder charged it was cut out and threatened despite having the low bid. There was also a wrongful-firing lawsuit from the former state transportation director, who charged she was dismissed in part for trying to cut back a huge state contract with a politically well-connected firm that had donated heavily to the governor’s campaigns. Both cases are still pending.
There are seldom questions, on the other hand, about Idaho’s enforcement of campaign finance and lobbyist registration laws, which often result in fines and penalties for those who try to skirt them.
Idaho requires all lobbying expenditures by registered lobbyists to be reported. Not included, however: the lobbyist’s salary. This is a significant gap in Idaho’s otherwise comprehensive lobbyist reporting laws.
“I’d like to know what the salaries are,” said Idaho Chief Deputy Secretary of State Tim Hurst. That would provide a more complete picture of how much a particular company or interest is spending to push a particular bill, position or policy in Idaho.
The Secretary of State’s office hasn’t hesitated to propose changes in the law over the years to make the reporting system work better. Among the successful proposals: an extension of lobbying reporting requirements to those seeking to influence the executive branch, which came about after news reports about such lobbying raised eyebrows.
“Now they have to report those, and they are reporting,” Hurst said.
Idaho also tightened up its laws regarding use of campaign cash after a former governor used such funds for questionable expenditures, including a haircut and flowers.
Much of the credit for initiatives like online access and campaign reporting goes to longtime Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. Ysursa, 62, who’s been in office since 2002 and served as chief deputy for 26 years before that, has built a stellar reputation as an aggressive advocate for open government and fair elections.
“Ben has been able to stand up to political pressure,” Hansen said. But, he warned, “He’s not going to live forever.”