Idaho’s culture of corruption by Corey Taule

Printed on: December 04, 2011 in Post Register News
Idaho’s culture of corruption
Corey Taule
In 1986, former Idaho Congressman George Hansen entered a federal prison after making false statements on campaign financial disclosure forms. Seeing a high-elected official do the perpetrator walk shocked his former constituents.

Twenty-five years later, it is clear Idahoans should prepare for a repeat. The culture of corruption within which Idaho’s politicians operate seems inevitably to be leading to another high-profile fall from grace.

Idaho has endured a litany of mini-scandals recently, incidents that attract our attention for a few days but fall short of leading to the reforms Idaho’s system desperately needs.

What are we talking about? Buckle in for a long ride:

– A lawsuit is pending over the firing of Idaho Transportation Department Director Pam Lowe, who lost her job as she was attempting to reduce multimillion contracts for politically connected companies. Lowe is also alleging sexism, something that was borne out when we learned her male predecessor was treated far better on his way out the door.

– The Jan. 7 resignation of State Tax Commission Chairman Royce Chigbrow came after nine former and current agency employees accused commissioners of cutting sweetheart deals for the rich and politically connected. Chigbrow, who once served as Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s campaign treasurer, escaped prosecution because the statute of limitations had expired.

– The Corrections Corporation of America settled two lawsuits concerning abuse of inmates at the Idaho prison it manages. And yet, no elected officials are talking about ending the state’s $30 million annual commitment to CCA. Maybe that’s because CCA has spread thousands in campaign contributions around to key lawmakers, including Otter. Or perhaps it has something to do with the recruitment and hiring of Otter’s former chief of staff, Jason Kreizenbeck, by CCA’s Boise lobbyist, Skip Smyser, whose wife, Melinda, serves in the state Senate.

– Athol Republican Phil Hart purposely failed to pay income taxes for years and built a home from timber he lifted off state endowment lands. When a fellow Republican legislator, Eric Anderson of Priest Lake, called for an ethics probe, a couple of things happened: Anderson lost his job as vice chairman of the House State Affairs Committee; and the House, urged on by Speaker Lawerence Denney, changed its ethics rules. Now, ethics complaints are vetted behind closed doors by a panel hand-picked by Denney.

– Those new rules came in handy because following the 2011 legislative session, we learned that Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, with Denney’s help, killed a bill, helping to clear the way for his still-pending lawsuit against Bonneville County. Denney took one day to declare that nothing was amiss.

– Idaho GOP Chairman Norm Semanko received a $160,000 taxpayer-supported loan from the Idaho Water Users Association, something that would be illegal in most states; two Republican state senators collected extra per diem while voting to cut school and mental health budgets; and Treasurer Ron Crane shepherded, at taxpayer expense, a select group of legislators, friends and family around Manhattan in stretch limos.

And who could forget Sen. John McGee’s protracted silence over his DUI and disappearing grand theft charges?

This is what happens when one faction rules absolutely and everyone else stops paying attention. There are, of course, steps we could take to clean up our public processes: Force legislators and their spouses to disclose personal financial information; pass revolving-door legislation to keep folks like Kreizenbeck from leaping into the arms of folks like Smyser; advance the top two vote-getters in the primary to the general election, regardless of party, something that might weed out extremists such as the House nullification advocates; embrace voting through the mail; get rid of the PERSI perk, which allows lawmakers to inflate their taxpayer-funded retirements; and strip part-time lawmakers of their health care benefits.

Let’s get real, though. None of this is going to happen. Idaho will continue to sail along in a sea of small scandals until, finally, the tsunami hits. Then, naturally, we’ll hurl invectives at whichever public official takes the George Hansen perp walk.

But that anger will be misplaced. When the day arrives, all of us should stand in front of a mirror as we point the finger.

Idaho’s culture of corruption results directly from one thing: Idahoans’ indifference about the things being done in our name.

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