BOISE — With the integrity of the entire Idaho House of Representatives at stake, the House Ethics Committee convened an extraordinary five-hour hearing Wednesday to determine what constitutes “conduct unbecoming.”
The committee heard testimony from Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, R-Lewiston, a former Army airborne infantry soldier and first-term lawmaker who has impressed colleagues with his work ethic and gentlemanly demeanor.
It also heard from “Jane Doe,” a 19-year-old House intern who has accused von Ehlinger of rape.
Testifying from behind a black screen to protect her identify, the woman did not directly describe events on the night of March 9, when she and the 38-year-old von Ehlinger went out to dinner.
However, she confirmed the accuracy of a Boise police report, in which she alleged that the representative took her back to his apartment and then “grabbed her head and hair,” straddling her and forcing her to perform oral sex, despite her telling him, “No, I don’t want to. This is wrong.”
On the advice of his attorney, von Ehlinger exercised his Fifth Amendment rights and declined to discuss exactly what took place in his apartment that night.
However, he has denied the intern’s version of events, saying the sex was consensual. He also denied violating any House rules, saying there’s no prohibition against dating staff.
The issue for the Ethics Committee is whether von Ehlinger’s behavior — irrespective of whose version of the events is accurate — constitutes conduct unbecoming a member of the House.
“We aren’t here talking about false claims,” said Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, one of three Republicans on the five-member committee. “The question before this body is: Was the conduct of the representative detrimental to the integrity of the House? That’s the simple question we have to answer. The courts will determine the consent question.”
The full House will eventually weigh in on this matter. The Ethics Committee can recommend that von Ehlinger be reprimanded, censured or expelled, but it’s up to the body to pass final judgment. It could vote on the issue as early as this afternoon.
More than 30 House members attended Wednesday’s hearing in person, and dozens more undoubtedly watched the live online stream.
Chairman Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, began the proceedings by saying it wasn’t a criminal trial, although it might look like that at times.
“This is a matter internal to the House of Representatives, which has now become public by House rules,” he said.
The House Republican leadership team filed an ethics complaint against von Ehlinger in March, after learning about the intern’s allegations.
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said they took that step “to protect the integrity of the Idaho House and its representatives — not only those who serve here today, but also every person who has ever been elected or ever will be elected to the Idaho House.”
Two deputies from the Attorney General’s Office presented the case against von Ehlinger. They tried to demonstrate a pattern of behavior, in which he allegedly forced his attention on women and ignored warnings that he was crossing the line.
For example, he asked a House staffer out in January, shortly after watching a training session on the House Respectful Workplace policy, which discusses sexual harassment in the workplace.
He also dated a contract security guard and allegedly stalked or pursued a lobbyist during the special legislative session last August and again this year.
Von Ehlinger’s attorney, Edward Dindinger, repeatedly noted that there are no written rules or laws that prohibit lawmakers from dating legislative staff.
The ethics complaint alleges that von Ehlinger engaged in conduct unbecoming by violating the Respectful Workplace policy, Dindinger said, yet “we’ve never been provided notice of any specific provision in the policy that he violated.”
Moreover, in questioning Bedke, Dindinger established that the Respectful Workplace policy has never even been formally adopted by the House.
“This entire proceeding is based on a supposed violation of nonspecific, unspoken or unwritten rules,” he said. “It represents the imposition of an ex post facto sanction against Rep. von Ehlinger.”
Bedke said the Legislative Council, which oversees administrative activities for the House and Senate, has adopted the Respectful Workplace policy.
“The House has always stopped short of formalizing that, but everyone is clear that staff and all members in the building operate under that policy,” he said.
Committee members also appeared skeptical of the notion that lawmakers should only be held accountable for violations of written rules and that any other behavior is fair game.
Along those same lines, Deputy Attorney General Leslie Hayes asked von Ehlinger if lawmakers should be held to a higher standard than the general public.
“Yes,” he replied. “They should be extra careful in following the law. ... I think representatives have a duty to do the best job they can for their constituents. They’re held to the standard their constituents put upon them.”
“So you’ve taken the position it was OK for you to date Jane Doe because she was 19, correct?” Hayes asked.
“Her age had no bearing as far as me thinking it was OK to date anyone,” he said.
Although von Ehlinger’s behavior was the subject of much of Wednesday’s testimony, Dindinger was often stymied in his efforts to question the behavior or credibility of Jane Doe.
For example, he was prevented from asking whether she had entered into a fee agreement with a private attorney to represent her in a possible civil lawsuit — despite testimony from the intern that one reason she went out with von Ehlinger was because “he’s got money.”
“I make $8 an hour,” she said. “He was definitely going to take me someplace I’d never been. He has money, I don’t.”
Following several tense exchanges, a clearly frustrated Dindinger eventually threw in the towel.
“In light of the objections and my inability to proceed with any line of inquiry, I think I’m done with this witness,” he said.
Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, later testified about an altercation or confrontation she had with Jane Doe. She said she was returning from lunch when the woman “accosted” her.
“She started spouting off, very loudly, aggressively,” Giddings said. “The things she was saying ... it was, ‘Rep. Giddings, you call yourself a woman of integrity, a Christian woman. You lied. You’re destroying my life. I’m just a teenager. Why are you doing this?’ It was very loud.”
The incident occurred after Giddings posted a link on her Facebook page to a Redoubt News article that publicly named Jane Doe and cast doubt on her honesty.
“I told her she was a horrible person,” Doe told the committee, in describing the altercation. “Why would she do that to me? What did I do? She’d never even met me, never talked to me, but she wants to hurt me and put me in danger.”
After more than five hours of testimony, the Ethics Committee recessed for the day. It’s scheduled to resume deliberations this morning at 9 a.m. PDT, with the hearing available online at bit.ly/32UuSZI. It will discuss the complaint and make a recommendation on what action, if any, the House should consider.
The full House is scheduled to reconvene at 12:30 p.m. PDT, although it’s unclear if it will take up this issue immediately or wait for another day.
Spence may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 791-9168.
House Ethics Committee hearing
Today, 9 a.m. PDT, Boise