BOISE, Idaho — The Senate Ethics Commission on Wednesday cleared Sen. Monty Pearce of disclosure transgressions.
But the process underscored natural tensions built into Idaho's citizen Legislature, which encourages insurance agents, teachers, lawyers and ranchers like Pearce to leave their normal lives behind and bring their personal expertise into the realm of public-policy making.
That's why the Senate and House require disclosure — but urge members to vote, anyway.
With Pearce exonerated, the rules governing appropriate disclosure will continue to evolve. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis says the furor has served to underscore the fragility of the public's trust.
"It's an uncomfortable reminder," said Davis, R-Idaho Falls.
Potential conflicts abound.
That's clear every time Sen. Jeff Siddoway brings a measure to help elk ranchers or award landowners potentially lucrative hunting tags. He's an elk rancher and a big landowner.
Siddoway, R-Terreton, says he's frustrated at the attention he sometimes gets, while others appear to slide by without so much of a sideways glance.
"Every day, we have medical bills, insurance bills, folks carrying those bills are affected," he said. "Some of them were affected directly. I don't think you're going to see complaints about those bills."
Rep. Joe Palmer's failed push for free Capitol mall parking also highlighted the issue too, since the Meridian lawmaker's son faces hundreds of dollars' worth of parking tickets and towing fees for ignoring citations.
Pearce, R-New Plymouth, got into hot water for votes on oil and gas legislation being pushed by Snake River Oil & Gas, a company that has leased his land. He insists he did nothing wrong, but concedes changes are a good idea.
"We have an obligation to the public not only to maintain the highest ethical standards, but also to show them that we have clear procedures and rules for how we go about conducting the public's business," Pearce said.
The Senate ethics panel is due to meet one final time, though a meeting Friday where recommendations for changes were expected has been canceled.
Alterations, if they come, will probably include a reminder to legislators like Pearce that they should disclose potential conflicts in committee — long before any measures reach the Senate floor and blow up.
It's not necessarily because lawmakers can't be trusted to ignore their private interests in pursuit of good public policy.
It's simply because the public has more confidence in the democratic process if everybody's cards are on the table.
Though all three Democratic ethics committee members voted to dismiss the complaint, some members of the minority party remain incensed at what they view as Pearce getting off scot-free.
They're particularly unhappy some Republican lawmakers appeared to make light of the complaint, by declaring absurd conflicts out of protest.
Siddoway tried to squirm out of a vote on abortion ultrasound legislation, saying he had two unmarried daughters; tongue firmly in cheek, Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, said he had no conflicts other than breathing air and walking on dirt.
Given that the case against Pearce is history, however, Democrats say they'll settle for a revamp of Senate rules.
"The line needs to be brighter, so there is no room for doubt in the motives of senators tasked with balancing personal and public interests," said Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai.
However reforms take shape, they're unlikely to include creation of an independent ethics commission, something Democrats were fire and flame for in January, but which has since been put on ice by both House and Senate leaders.
Ironically, the Democrats' own complaint — in conjunction with Pearce's unanimous acquittal — helped further convince Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill a separate panel would be superfluous.
"It tells me the Senate solved its own problems and...is still the proper venue" to conduct ethics proceedings, Hill, R-Rexburg, told the AP.
Largely lost in the Pearce hubbub was a stark example of one lawmaker who quietly rose above his self-interest.
On March 9, in debate over whether an energy industry-backed measure — the one that prompted the Pearce trouble — unfairly gutted local control of drilling, the Senate deadlocked 17-17 on considering changes to allow more public comment over where gas wells could be located.
Lt. Gov. Brad Little, a rancher with well-known leases to oil and gas exploration companies, broke the tie, siding with those demanding more local-government input — even though he arguably stood to benefit if cities or counties didn't have any say.Comment on this story
Little chuckled about how his ranching friends in western Idaho were apoplectic over his vote. Some told him they were driving to Boise to give him a piece of their minds.
Meanwhile, Idaho Association of Counties officials, whose members were divided on the bill, told Little "they just about fell out of their chairs."
"It was a classy act," said the county group's director, Dan Chadwick, who was following Little's vote via Internet that afternoon. "I thought, 'There's a guy who's not afraid to vote against his self-interest."