Ethics Chair Dixon provides more details on recommendation to censure Rep. Giddings

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

As the political waves settle following the Idaho House Ethics Committee’s unanimous vote Aug. 3 to recommend censure for Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, some of the details of how that punishment might play out are becoming clearer — as well as revealing what some lawmakers feel are needed changes to the rules governing ethics complaints.

Giddings, who is running for lieutenant governor in the May 2022 GOP primary, ran afoul of her colleagues — 17 Republicans and eight Democrats, who signed onto a complaint against her — based on posts she made to Facebook and her official legislative newsletter linking to a right-wing blog that outed the identity of a 19-year-old Statehouse intern who accused former-Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, R-Lewiston, of sexually assaulting her.

Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird. File photo.

Von Ehlinger faced the Ethics Committee in April and subsequently resigned rather than face expulsion from the Legislature — but not before Giddings in her testimony in that hearing seemed to evade answering committee members’ questions about whether she had identified the teen. She first claimed that she had not posted the identity of “Jane Doe” (though that was quickly disproved when screenshots of her Facebook page were entered into the record), then said that she had merely linked to a secondary source. 

She told the committee in August that she had only “skimmed” the blog — published online by Redoubt News — before linking to it on her Facebook page and in her legislative newsletter.

The bipartisan Ethics Committee in August found both her testimony in the von Ehlinger case and her own hearing to be evasive — if not downright confrontational and obstructive — and decided that her conduct had been “unbecoming” of a state legislator and, furthermore, removed her from the House Commerce and Human Resources Committee. She would, however, remain on the Agriculture and powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations committees.

Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, presided over the Giddings hearings as chair of the Ethics Committee. 

“As we ruminated on appropriate conditions to the censure, or if we would apply conditions at all, there seemed to be a nexus with the Commerce and Human Resources Committee and the actions contained in the two complaints,” he told the Reader in a follow up email Aug. 10. “We could have done more, or we could have done less, but the one afternoon committee was what we settled on.”

The committee has 30 days from the conclusion of the hearing to prepare and present a report on its findings to the House, including its reasons for making the recommendation. That report — required under House Rule 45 — is to be delivered to all members of the House of Representatives to inform their deliberations on whether to affirm or dismiss the recommended censure. 

Dixon said the report is being worked on and will likely “be completed well before the 30-day deadline.”

“If the recommendation passes the House, the condition will go along with an official recognition of censure from the body that is read into the House Journal for that day,” he added.

Because the House did not adjourn sine die from the 2021 legislative session, it is technically only in recess and could be called back into session by House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, who is facing Giddings and former-Coeur d’Alene Republican Rep. Luke Malek in the lieutenant governor’s race.

It’s anyone’s guess when — or whether — the House will reconvene; though, “At the very latest, it needs to be before Dec. 31, which is when our resolution to recess expires,” Dixon said. 

“I imagine that they will not want the Ethics Committee’s recommendation to expire out of respect for the number of members who signed the second complaint,” he added, referring to the so-called “group complaint” signed by members of both the Republican and Democratic caucuses. 

Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay. File photo.

The committee considered and ultimately dismissed a separate ethics complaint against Giddings filed by Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, in part because many of its points were also covered by the group complaint and also that it touched on allegations related to defamatory statements made by Giddings against fellow House members. The committee determined those allegations were not within its purview to address. 

In the meantime, Dixon said the Giddings case has prompted calls to make changes to House Rule 45 — specifically related to confidentiality requirements that make it difficult to thoroughly investigate a complaint, as well as whether the Ethics Committee chair should be selected by the speaker of the House or by committee members. That point became a hot button during the two-day Giddings hearing, as she repeatedly framed the proceedings as a political move by Speaker Bedke in an attempt to undermine her campaign for lieutenant governor.

What’s more, Dixon said there is some lack of clarity on whether respondents can retain outside counsel to represent them before the committee and how House members fit under the Capitol’s Respectful Workplace Policy.

“As elected officials, House members occupy a unique space that doesn’t fit exactly under that policy, but still have close interaction with state employees so there is a large gray area that needs definition,” he said. “All efforts to amend the rule place a high priority upon protecting members from politically motivated complaints being brought forth.”

According to Dixon, lawmakers plan to meet sometime in the fall to discuss changes to Rule 45, “and hopefully settle on something that can be presented to the body early next session.”

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