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Idaho speaker has no plans for ethics probe of lawmaker

By Todd Dvorak

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, June 4 2011 8:17 p.m. MDT

BOISE, Idaho — Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney says he has no intention to call for an ethics investigation to determine if Republican Rep. Tom Loertscher benefited personally from killing a bill during the final weeks of the 2011 Legislature.

Denney, R-Midvale, said Thursday he doesn't believe Loertscher acted inappropriately or gained financially by using his authority as chairman of the State Affairs Committee in March to derail a bill designed to clarify the process used by county government to abandon public roadways.

Loertscher's handling of the bill has drawn media scrutiny because he and two neighbors filed a lawsuit in April asking a judge in Bonneville County to have old roads that now provide public access across their ranch property declared private.

"I don't think there was anything done that was inappropriate," Denney told The Associated Press on Thursday. "And I will not call for an ethics committee investigation."

Loertscher is chairman of the House Ethics Committee.

Idaho ethics law gives the House Speaker the power to launch an ethics probe, but the Speaker can be forced to act if a House member files a complaint against another member. That process played out last year when Democrats filed a complaint prompting Loertscher and the ethics committee to investigate allegations against Athol Republican Phil Hart.

So far, Denney said he has not received a complaint against Loertscher.

For now, House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said he's content to let House GOP leaders take the lead.

"The ball is in their court," Rusche said. "But I think it's really important for the credibility of the institution and for the people to have confidence in knowing that the Legislature is serving them for the common good and not for personal reasons."

Questions about Loertscher's handling of House Bill 246 were first raised last week by the Post-Register.

Using public records and interviews, the Idaho Falls newspaper reported that Loertscher asked Denney in mid-March to have the bill assigned to State Affairs, a committee chaired by Loertscher, rather than the Transportation Committee, typically the landing spot for bills related to roads and bridges.

"When I found out it had been assigned to State Affairs, I couldn't understand that," Rep. Joanne Wood, R-Rigby, and former chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, said Thursday. "Why would it go there?"

The bill, proposed by the Idaho Association of Highway Districts, would have made sure that the process used to declare roads private or public would first go through county government officials first and involve public input.

But Denney said the bill contained language and proposed changes that made it an appropriate fit for several committees. So when Loertscher asked, Denney consented.

Within days, Loertscher set the tone for the bill's future in a meeting with IAHD lobbyist Stuart Davis.

"We sat down in his (Loertscher's) office and I laid out what I was trying to accomplish and he shared his concerns," Davis said Thursday. "I thought he had some good points."

Davis, also recognizing that new bills rarely advance late in the session, said he would rewrite the bill and try again in 2012.

"I thought (the bill) was prejudiced against private property owners and gave the county too much power," Loertscher told the Post Register.

In April, after the legislature adjourned, Loertscher, along with neighbor and former state Sen. Stan Hawkins, sued Bonneville County to change the status of three roads crossing their ranch property near Iona.

The lawsuit claims that all three roads deemed public right-of-way on the official county map are private and previously abandoned by the county. Idaho law allows such disputes to be settled in court, but the venue does not allow for broad public input.

Denney said he's confident Loertscher had nothing to gain by scuttling the bill. Even if it cleared the House and Senate and gotten the governor's signature, the law would not have gone into effect until July 1, giving Loertscher ample to time to take his case to court, just as he is now, Denney said.

"We're always concerned about perception and the way things look," Denney said. "But the first question you need to ask for an ethics investigation is what was the financial benefit gained? There isn't one here."

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